BET founder takes risks to stay on top

August 24, 1992|By Shelia M. Poole | Shelia M. Poole,Cox News Service

Robert Johnson, the president and founder of Black Entertainment Television, can be described as a risk-taker with a vision.

He took a risk in 1979 when he left his job as a lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association to follow his dream of starting the nation's first black-controlled cable network the following year.

He took a risk again in 1991 when he took BET public, hoping that investors would buy into his dream as well.

Today the stakes are even higher as Mr. Johnson embarks on an aggressive strategy to build his multimedia empire.

His cable network has already brought black-themed programming into millions of homes nationwide -- including 901,000 subscribers in Georgia, according to BET. The network and two publications also have provided advertisers with powerful mediums to target black audiences.

The challenge now is to stave off intense competition from media outlets looking to tap into ethnic markets.

"The goal is to really build ourselves up as the pre-eminent cable network and beyond that to build ourselves up as the pre-eminent black media company in the 21st century," he said. "We really want to be the primary way that black Americans get their news and entertainment, and we're working in that direction."

Mr. Johnson already has expanded BET's reach. The company has controlling interest in Emerge magazine, which targets upscale black adults, and last year began publication of YSB (Young Sisters and Brothers), aimed at black teens. Mr. Johnson also has signed on with promoter Butch Lewis to develop pay-for-view events and with actor Tim Reid to create television dramas and film projects.

And, in a major move, BET is introducing a fall lineup of mostly in-house produced shows.

Mr. Johnson also has his eye on radio.

"I'm an entrepreneur pursuing a vision of what I think is possible from a business sense," said Mr. Johnson, 46, whose office is in the tony Georgetown area of Washington. "If that means taking a few risks, then that's fine."

That attitude doesn't surprise Joshua I. Smith, president of Maryland-based Maxima Corp., who has known Mr. Johnson for about 10 years.

"Bob is a person who knows his field, knows where he wants to go and knows how to get there," Mr. Smith said.

Getting there took hard work. Lots of it.

Empire-building wasn't the career of choice for a younger Johnson, the ninth of 10 children who grew up in Freeport, Ill. He wanted to be a fighter pilot. Less-than-perfect vision prevented him from pursuing that dream. So he began looking at jobs that would keep his feet more solidly on the ground.

Mr. Johnson graduated with a degree in social studies from the University of Illinois and has a master's degree in public affairs from Princeton University.

He was a staffer for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and later for former Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.).

While he was vice president of government relations at the National Cable Television Association, Mr. Johnson considered starting a black cable network.

He launched BET in 1980 with $15,000 of his own money and $500,000 from Tele-Communications Inc., a Colorado-based cable company.

"The basic premise was that blacks watch a lot of television and advertisers try to reach blacks on a target basis to buy their products," Mr. Johnson said.

"If it worked in magazines, if it worked in radio, why couldn't it work in television?"

Initially, BET offered just two hours of programming a week to about 3.8 million cable households. Four years later, the network began broadcasting 24 hours a day.

Realizing the potential, other large investors were quick to buy a stake.

In the 1980s, Time-Warner Inc., Home Box Office Inc. and Taft Broadcasting Co. (now Great American Broadcasting Co.), made investments in the new network.

More than a decade after its founding, more viewers and, most importantly, more advertisers are tuning in to BET.

Today the cable network has about 32 million subscribers, according to the company's prospectus.

Revenue rose $14.7 million to $50.8 million in fiscal year 1991, according to Paul Kagan Associates Inc. It is expected to reach $60.8 million this fiscal year.

About 85 percent of its viewers are black, but white viewership increases to 25 percent for the music video shows.

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