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    A Woman of Influence

    If live awards events are a little bit like a circus—spectacle, glamour and a certain amount of danger—then Connie Orlando is the ultimate Ring Mistress, overseeing four of the most influential shows of their kind, for BET Networks.

    From music to movies, style to social justice, BET’s annual Soul Train, NAACP Image, BET, and Hip-Hop Awards celebrations have for years spotlighted the best of the Black community under Orlando’s direction. As cultural benchmarks, they have drawn large audiences, provided prominent platforms and set important agendas of conversation.

    Now that live events have started up again as COVID-19 restrictions ease, those gala-style evenings are having to reinvent themselves in the light of changing consumer attitudes, and in the wake of a tumultuous year.

    It’s a challenge Orlando has embraced as BET’s Executive Vice President, Specials, Music Programming, Music Strategy, and News, a portfolio that makes her the network’s senior Black female executive.

    She arrived there in 2007 as Vice President of Original Programming, from a background in the music video world that included working with Jay-Z on his groundbreaking 1998 movie soundtrack, The Streets is Watching. Before being appointed EVP in 2019, she served as Senior Vice President of Specials, Music Programming, and News.

    Orlando talks about the different awards shows she shepherds as her children, each having its own unique personality.

    Soul Train: “Grown and sexy.” The NAACP Image Awards (where she has picked up several honors herself): “Very Black excellence.” The BET Awards: “The best in Black culture.” The Hip-Hop Awards: “Everything relevant, everything now.”

    With each, she aims to “showcase where we are right now, where we’ve been—because it’s important to kind of see where we’ve been—and then really give some insight or a glimpse into the future and where we’re going with what’s new and what’s next. And they all come together in their own ways, with their own personalities.”

    A pulse point

    Orlando looks back on last year’s BET Awards show as the best single event she has been involved in, for a couple of reasons. First, there was the personal challenge involved. It was “super scary” having to recast the whole show as a virtual one in a relatively short time, when things were locked down.

    ” I can release a little bit of the control and trust that things will get done.”

    And on a creative level, it was just kind of fun to take the guardrails off and see what we could do when we weren’t limited to that little stage, and being live. And I think we did an amazing job.”

    “I’ve been on sets and in person for the last 25 years, and I had to sit down and learn tech in a way I never had to before,” she says. “I was under considerable time constraints… The show was literally, like six weeks away, so we had to learn and then execute and teach others in the process, how they had to learn too.” One unexpected personal lesson was “that I can release a little bit of the control and trust that things will get done.

    Then there was its moment in time, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the coronavirus crisis. “I think it delivered on it in a way that was unapologetic. It delivered on it in a way that was authentic. It delivered on it in a way of really having a pulse point on what was happening, what people were feeling,” she says.

    “I think it’s the show that I am most proud of and I’m proud because I know the decisions we made during that time. It was like, you know what? Just go for it. Let’s do it.”

    There has been a lot of talk about increased diversity over the last year, but has Orlando seen any real change?

    “The beginnings,” she says. “I think the payoff of the promises that were made last year at this time will be something that we’ll probably start really being able to see at the end of this year.”

    A bold move

    Orlando applauds NBC’s decision not to air the Golden Globes next year, following a groundswell of criticism that the awards do not reflect enough diversity. “I think it was a bold and brave move,” she says. “I think sometimes people get so caught up in the bottom line that they may not make the right decisions because it’s going to impact that bottom line…

    It really goes to how we all have to kind of stand together… everyone coming together really made the impact and it just shows the power of what we can do when we all align behind a particular goal or with a particular mission in hand.”

    For her part, Orlando feels an added responsibility to be part of that change. “I’ve always been passionate about diversity,” she says. “That’s why I’ve always worked at companies that were African American-based, so I could hire people who look like me in these roles.” Over the past year, though, she has paid even more attention “not only to what I’m doing, but to what others are doing. I give referrals, I send lists of people who might be good for different roles.” It’s about “developing the next layer of talent that’s coming.”

    While BET isn’t a full-blown news network, it does have a news division, with specials and documentaries, which fall under Orlando’s leadership. “I’ve always been an advocate of telling stories,” she says, speaking of the need to be authentic and unapologetic in communicating “the messages that we want people to receive… So I like to think that our stories walk in a truth that needs to be heard.”

    A passion point

    Her vantage point from four influential platforms gives Orlando a unique perspective on trends. So what does she see happening in the music world? “I think it’s getting back to the roots of authentic music,” she observes. “I think we went through a period of time where artists were trying to not necessarily be themselves, but be cool… be what was happening right now.”

    Now, she sees “a lot of people just going back and being authentically themselves, authentically doing their art. And I think when that happens, you feel it… you feel it when you listen to it, when you see it performed because it’s a passion point. It’s a purpose point. And I see people going back to that. All the albums that I’m hearing, they’re deep… I think it’s just been a real awakening for music and everybody in this time.”

    Orlando is grateful for the creative jolt of COVID-19. “It got me thinking another way,” she says. “I like to call it like a paradigm shift. COVID shifted everything and how we think, and now it’s more like, what can we do? And it’s not because we have to, it’s how do we become more innovative? How do we evolve with new, different, bigger? It just got me thinking differently, creatively, about what outside the box looks like.”

    Looking ahead, Orlando believes that award shows need to be re-imagined. “We learned a lot last year, that there was room for that,” she says. “And there was excitement around that. You can’t go back to the cookie-cutter formulas of just giving out awards and performances. It’s really about how you engage your audience, how they get invested and then how you deliver that content in a way that’s fresh and gets people talking.”

    Speaking just ahead of this year’s BET Awards (“98% of it happening live”), Orlando was excited about prepping for the country’s first major live awards event since the pandemic. More names were wanting, and lined up, to do the show than at any other time.

    “I think it’s a function of, just this reawakening,” she says. “COVID is still here, but we’ve kind of learned how to kind of work with it.” Another factor: more artists were releasing new music after a season of laying low. “People are just anxious to get back on the big stage and show the world.”

    An opportunity to help

    You can’t pull off a big awards event without knowing how to juggle a lot of business relationships. What’s her secret to building and maintaining them? “For me, my relationships all involve integrity and consistency,” she says. “I like to just deliver on any promise that I make and when I can’t, I call and I’m transparent about why I can’t or what needs to happen.”

    Access and staying in touch are important too. She notes how she is “the most popular person in the world” in the weeks leading up to an event. “A lot of people just call me around the awards, but I think true relationships and true advocates and friends come from… year-round, it’s a relationship that has to be maintained and it involves care. So I just try to bring my true self to all my relationships.”

    A longtime encourager of others, Orlando has worked as a mentor and says that everyone can be a waymaker for someone else, “because we are on a journey and we can always add insight to someone who’s behind us. Not advice that, this is how you live your life, but just to give you information. So if you have an opportunity to be a waymaker, you should absolutely take that. It can be as small or as big as you want it, but you gotta do it.”

    The sense of responsibility she carries to help others isn’t new. “I’ve always felt it’s just being a Black woman,” she says. “It was my responsibility. But now it’s like, OK, I need to not only make sure that my ship is upright, I need to make sure that it holds you accountable for your ship… just that checks and balances, like, I’m more attuned and listening and holding people accountable to what they say than I may have been in the past.”

    A real anthem

    Knowing the ingredients for a good event drives the choices she makes when asked to select the four people she would most like to sit down with for a special dinner. Hers would be centered around Black womanhood, she says, a dinner that “kind of discusses the trajectory of our girls and our women going into this, the biggest year for Black women ever, and how we keep that going.”

    With that in mind, the first seat would go to actor, the late Cicely Tyson, “because I think she just demanded respect at a time where it was hard, and she demanded it and she got it.” Next would be Michelle Obama, “because she just embodies grace and forwardthinking.” Queen Latifah would be on the list, too, on account of her Grammywinning song challenging disrespect of women, “U.N.I.T.Y.” Says Orlando: “She knew that there was something there… and we kind of picked it up as a real anthem.”

    Last but not least would be a surprise to many: Cardi B, “because I think she has the voice of all these young women. I don’t think people give Cardi B enough credit for how smart she is, and I think she would add tremendously to the conversation as the person who kind of speaks to what’s happening right now.”

    Perhaps it’s her experience working with live events, knowing a backup plan is useful for when things can go wrong, but Orlando also names a substitute guest, in case one of those four can’t make it. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman, “because she was just a radical. She was radical before we knew what radical was.”

    Showing her style

    The slowdown of the pandemic gave Connie Orlando an opportunity to pursue a personal passion project.

    Having long provided a showcase for fashion designers through the events she has produced, she began work on her own line, tapping into a childhood love that saw her tearing up sheets and making toga dresses and doing fashion shows around the house.

    “That’s one of the lessons out of COVID,” she says. “I’d rather try to do it than say, ‘I wish I would have done it.’” Her first styles for women are due to appear soon, with a men’s selection to follow later.

    MY WAYMAKER: CONNIE ORLANDO
    Among several she names as influential in her television career, Connie Orlando speaks especially of Deborah Lee, former President and CEO of BET Networks, who made her head of programming after a decade at BET.

    “That was a huge opportunity,” Orlando says, “and I always tell everybody, you never know who’s watching you… I love Deborah for that. She literally went in-house and put someone in the position that could grow into it and bring a different perspective.”

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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