updated 6/2/2005 4:53:01 PM ET 2005-06-02T20:53:01

Robert Johnson, who built BET into the leading TV network for black Americans, announced on Thursday he would retire from the company in January.

Debra Lee, the company's president and chief operating officer, will assume Johnson's CEO role upon his exit.

Johnson started Black Entertainment Television from the basement of his Washington home during cable's infancy in 1979. BET is now seen in more than 80 million homes in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.

First black billionaire
Johnson, 59, became the nation's first black billionaire when he sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion in 2000, joining the company that also owns MTV and Nickelodeon. He received a five-year contract to stay with BET after the sale.

He's the owner of the National Basketball Association's Charlotte Bobcats and is involved in several businesses, including real estate, hotel ownership and a jazz record label.

During a springtime programming presentation to advertisers in New York that doubled as a 25th anniversary celebration, Johnson reminisced about starting BET after securing a $500,000 loan from longtime cable executive John Malone _ more money than he expected.

Yet it was clearly Lee's show that day, as she filled in advertisers about upcoming plans. BET focuses on reaching an 18-to-34-year-old audience with heavy music programming.

"In great Hands"
Lee started with BET as general counsel in 1986 and moved into her current position 10 years later.

"I am convinced that BET's legacy is in great hands with Debra at the helm," Johnson said.

BET has received criticism in recent years for de-emphasizing news and public affairs and not investing in quality original programming.

Johnson has pointed out that "entertainment" was BET's middle name and that it had a programming mix similar to MTV.

He's expanded BET by creating smaller digital networks geared to fans of jazz, gospel and hip hop, a publishing house and event production firm.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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