Only two years ago, Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson seemed something of a pariah in Hollywood.
His Washington-based cable network's reliance on music videos and other inexpensive shows drew widespread criticism from black producers who accused Johnson of squandering the resources of the nation's only black-owned cable channel. And Johnson seemed equally testy about Hollywood, saying, "I don't get excited sitting around with Hollywood types talking about programming."
But with the recent boom in black filmmaking and black artists' prominence on the nation's record charts, Johnson, 45, has been busy mending his fences in Tinseltown and converting his detractors.
He has launched a Los Angeles-based celebrity show, signed up former television actor-producer Tim Reid to produce TV dramas and teamed up with flamboyant pay-TV fight promoter Butch Lewis in a bid to cash in on the burgeoning pay-per-view TV market.
Johnson has also raised his profile battling MTV Networks -- which has signed contracts to air some black artists exclusively and which may directly challenge BET's black music hegemony when it splits into three separately programmed music-video channels in mid-1993.
"Hollywood is important to us in terms of business relationships and in the creative sense," Johnson said. "I've never lost sight of that. Anybody in Hollywood knows they can pick up the phone and call me."
As for MTV, Johnson said, "We will not tolerate their use of monopoly power. This is the closest thing to a declaration of war that we've had with a competitor."
"Exclusivity is nothing new to the television industry," countered MTV spokeswoman Carol Robinson. "Bill Cosby is on NBC; one network gets the World Series. We pay good money to get exclusivity and that money is used to fuel video production."
Robinson added that it was "premature" to speculate whether MTV will directly compete with BET's music programming in 1993 because "no one knows what the music climate will be like then."
Johnson, however, is wasting no time covering his bets in Hollywood. Black Entertainment Television has always been a player in the cable and music industries, and now Johnson is trying to gain the same prominence in film and television production and in the burgeoning pay-TV field.
"BET has really proven effective both as a place to advertise black film and as an outlet for artists' works," said Reginald Hudlin, who directed the hit movie "House Party." With cable expanding into more urban areas where African-Americans are concentrated, he added, "I don't see any reason why [BET] can't become one of the most popular and successful cable networks."
Founded in 1980 with $15,000 of Johnson's money and a $500,000 investment from cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., BET has become a full-fledged, 24-hour cable network, with a $10 million studio in Washington and estimated annual revenue of $27.6 million in 1990, according to Paul Kagan Associates, a media research firm in Carmel, Calif.
Although some critics have called BET's television lineup of music videos, college sports, movies, news and talk shows uninspired, the network saw its prime-time ratings increase 15 percent to 0.6 in the first quarter of 1991, a period when ratings for rival MTV and VH-1 declined 9 percent and 13 percent, respectively, according to Kagan.
The ratings improvement has not yet paid off for BET's three major backers -- Tele-Communications, Great American Broadcasting Co. and Time Warner Inc.'s pay cable unit, Home Box Office, which together have $10 million invested in the network. But with 20 films by black directors scheduled to be released this year and with black artists behind 10 of the top 20 albums on a recent Billboard magazine pop chart, Johnson thinks BET can financially benefit from the new wave of black creativity sweeping Hollywood.
"That's why MTV is trying to encroach on our franchise," Johnson said. "Black urban sound is dominating the record charts. The same thing is happening in the film business. Young black directors are coming up with lots of exciting projects. But we have an advantage because BET's been there for black artists for a long time."
"If it were not for BET, a lot of artists would not have had any (video) exposure," said Ramon Hervey, a record industry publicist who represents Vanessa Williams and Al Jarreau, among others. "MTV has never really played much black music, until recently. I'm surprised that Bob Johnson didn't take a harsher stand earlier."
Dealing with rival MTV will not be easy. Larry Gerbrandt, senior analyst with Kagan Associates, believes MTV's expected launch of a full-time black music channel "may force BET back to its programming roots" and test "how much of an identity BET can create among its target audience."
But an unfazed Johnson disagrees: "MTV recognizes that BET has the hottest music franchise. We can go head-to-head with MTV any time."