Since its inception in 2001, the BET Awards has cemented itself as a can’t-miss event.
Routinely one of BET's highest-rated programs -- 2012's attracted 7.4 million viewers -- the awards might have come to life for the tens of thousands who flocked to L.A. to go to the concerts, celebrity panels or any of the events tied to the festival.
But what does the cable network have in store for the millions tuning into Sunday’s telecast?
Inside Nokia Theatre early Saturday evening, BET Awards executive producer Stephen Hill took a break from rehearsals to let us pick his brain about what to expect.
Here are five things to look forward to tonight. But beware, there’s some major spoilers ahead:
1. A bigger production. Last year, the network announced that it had teamed with AEG to move the show from its former home of the Shrine Auditorium to the Nokia Theatre, inside the glitzy L.A. Live complex. The move to a newer venue (it opened in 2007) gave producers more space to play.
“The question was, how can we take a show where its secret sauce is kind of being intimate and big at the same time?” Hill said. “We did that very well at the Shrine. How do we continue that here at the Nokia Theatre?”
That big feel comes courtesy of a flashy set that envelops the venue with a smattering of video screens onstage and on the walls around the audience. Hill said it was their “subtle way of saying the stage doesn’t end at the stage.”
2. Star power. BET never skimps on star wattage for its annual spectacle. And this year’s bill is no different.
Expect performances by Janelle Monáe, T.I., Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Jamie Foxx, Kirk Franklin, Pharrell Williams, Tamela Mann, 2 Chainz, Ciara, India Arie, Stevie Wonder and acts that have already played at this weekend’s BET Experience, Badu, Kirk Franklin, Miguel, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and R. Kelly -- who will close the awards with a performance from across the street at Staples Center, where he will headline the final night of concerts alongside New Edition and the Jacksons.
At rehearsal, we spotted 2 Chainz flanked by his entourage ahead of his rehearsal. The in-demand rapper has logged so many guest verses over the last year that he has a wealth of material to choose from. We couldn’t stick around for his run-through, but a source tells us that he’s tapped Lamar and ASAP Rocky to do some of their smash, “ … Problems” sans Drake, who dropped out of the lineup.
3. The Charlie Wilson tribute. You’d be hard-pressed to find another awards ceremony that fetes its lifetime achievement recipients better than BET, and it has long made its tribute segment one of the show’s most exhilarating moments, an easy feat considering BET has managed to give some of black music’s most revered artists their flowers when they can still smell them. Although Hill was tight-lipped about what’s in store, we spotted that one portion of the tribute features a dream team: Timberlake, Snoop and Pharrell. And that’s just one portion of the tribute, which will span Wilson’s influence both as frontman of R&B and funk outfit the Gap Band and his work as a solo artist.
4. The race for video of the year. Seemingly taking a cue from the Academy Awards, the night’s biggest award, video of the year, will feature 10 entries this year. The race features a formidable roster of smash hits including "Thrift Shop," “Adorn,” “Diamonds,” “Suit & Tie” and “Mercy,” along with five songs that feature Drake in some capacity. His singles "HYFR" and "Started From the Bottom" will compete against his collaborations with 2 Chainz ("No Lie"), Lamar ("Poetic Justice") and ASAP Rocky ("Problems"), giving the Young Money star an unparalleled leg up.
5. A “space-defining” opening. We asked Hill to tease the opening, which he would only call “space defining.” He wouldn’t spill any more details, but here’s what we do know. Brown is slated to open the show with a medley of tracks from his upcoming album, “X,” including singles “Fine China” the Aaliyah-sampling “Don’t Think They Know” and a new tune with Minaj (we hear she’s going to pop up during Ciara’s performance for their summer anthem “I’m Out”).
As for what makes the performance “space-defining”? Keep a close eye above the audience.
“We’ve got an opening that shows you immediately that we’re in a new place,” Hill teased. “We really get to explore the dimensions of the building. If we’re going to be here, we might as well explore all opportunities."