BET's Robert Johnson plots his next move

Robert Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television, in this December 2002 photo. Speculation is rife about Johnson's future at BET.Stephen Chernin / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Robert Johnson and Black Entertainment Television are known for one thing: each other. Soon, they could go their separate ways after a profitable 25-year relationship.

Johnson is busy with other projects, including his losing NBA franchise in Charlotte, N.C., while the deal that let him stay on as BET’s chief executive after he sold the network in 2000 expires this year.

Stepping down at BET would give Johnson more time to pursue his varied interests.

A divorced father of two, Democratic Party donor and consummate schmoozer who counts former President Clinton among his friends, Johnson set his sights high early on.

Not taken seriously when he first talked about serving a then-untapped market, Johnson was 34 when he launched BET — which is celebrating its silver anniversary this year — from the basement of his Washington home in January 1980.

It is the country’s first and largest black-oriented cable network, and has proved an unmatched success.

“Nobody had a clue about cable back then,” says Herman Penner, a college roommate of Johnson’s. “Obviously he dreamed a little bit bigger than that and was successful at it.”

A Mississippi native with a master’s degree from Princeton, Johnson led in other areas, too.

Student of diversification
Johnson, who turns 59 on April 8, is more than just BET. He became the country’s first black billionaire after BET’s sale for $3 billion nearly five years ago. He is the first black owner of a major sports team, the NBA’s first-year Charlotte Bobcats, which Johnson named after himself.

A lifelong sports fan, Johnson was a partner in the effort to return baseball to the nation’s capital, but he pulled out to focus on basketball before the Washington Nationals arrived.

He owns several Hilton and Marriott hotels, one of the country’s largest black art collections and several film rights. He has a stake in a jazz record label, is interested in developing real estate and sought unsuccessfully to buy majority control of Independence Federal Savings Bank, one of the largest black-owned thrifts.

His plan to become the first black owner of a commercial airline failed several years ago when the government opposed a proposed merger that would have created a new carrier he sought to own.

“What he’s doing is sort of the traditional way in which people with a lot of wealth use it,” said Ronald Walters, a friend and professor at the University of Maryland. “They don’t just do one thing.”

‘I don’t plan to continue’
BET officials declined to discuss Johnson’s future at the network, which reaches more than 79 million U.S. homes — about three-fourths of those with television — and 95 percent of black homes with cable TV, according to Nielsen Media Research.

But he suggested in a recent Newsweek interview that the end might be near. He declined requests for an AP interview.

“I don’t plan to continue in my current capacity,” he said he told officials at Viacom, the New York-based media company that owns CBS and MTV and bought BET in 2000.

Some analysts said they would not be surprised if Johnson stepped down, noting that he largely has given up control of day-to-day operations since the sale to focus on his other business ventures.

“He’s no longer the figurehead that he used to be,” said Christopher Holmes Smith, a communications professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

What next for the notorious BET?
If Johnson leaves, the question then becomes, “What happens to BET?” Will its lineup, largely of black comedies and hip-hop and rap music videos, remain or will Viacom step in and shake things up in response to criticism of BET’s programming choices?

Michael Lewellen, a spokesman for Washington-based BET, said via e-mail that the network will continue as an autonomous business unit of Viacom, the same as its other broadcast outlets.

Debra Lee, now BET’s president and chief operating officer after joining the network in 1986, is considered the most likely person to succeed Johnson.

Last year, cable provider Comcast Corp. and black-oriented Radio One launched TV One for blacks age 25 to 54, an older group than BET’s mostly youthful audience. Black Family Channel also is on the scene.

With more competition on the airwaves now for black cable TV viewers, one analyst did not see much change in store for BET without its charismatic founder at the controls.

“There will be an opportunity to either find another symbolic figurehead or do an actual reshuffling of the deck of BET’s brand and its organizational structure,” Smith said. “But my feeling is that won’t happen. I think that in the near term it will be pretty much full steam ahead in the direction that it’s going.”

Lightning rod for criticism
Friends and former associates credit Johnson’s determination and business savvy for his accomplishments in areas where few of those at the top are black. But where there is success, there usually is some criticism along the way, and so it has been with Johnson.

He has drawn criticism from some quarters, perhaps most notably from director Spike Lee, for BET’s content. Critics have accused him of “selling out” to the white owners at Viacom and took issue with his decision to replace respected but unprofitable news and public affairs programs with black comedies, music videos and other, more profitable entertainment.

Johnson’s defense is that he went into business to make money, just as his white counterparts did. He also has complained that MTV was praised for programming similar to BET’s.

Said pop culture critic Ed Robertson: “If BET wasn’t making an impact it wouldn’t be a target for satire or criticism. It’s called ’Black Entertainment Television.’ It’s not the ’Black News Network.”’