Home Black History BET – Leads the way in Black Entertainment

BET – Leads the way in Black Entertainment


BET is a Black Business Success Story we should all be proud of.  Even though it is now sold, it has blazed a trail.  To many businesses have started and do not now exist.  After 35 years, BET is still here.

So how did Black Entertainment Television (BET)  start? After stepping down as a lobbyist for the cable industry, Freeport, Illinois native Robert L. Johnson decided to launch his own cable television network. Johnson would soon acquire a loan for $15,000 and a $500,000 investment from media executive John Maloneto start the network. The network, which was named Black Entertainment Television, launched on January 25, 1980. Initially broadcasting for two hours a week as a block of programming on Nickelodeon (it would not be until 1983 that BET became a full-fledged channel), the network’s lineup consisted of music videos and reruns of popular black sitcoms


BET launched a news program, BET News, in 1988, with Ed Gordon as its anchor. Gordon later hosted other programs and specials on BET, such as Black Men Speak Out: The Aftermath, related to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and a recurring interview show,Conversations with Ed Gordon. In 1996, the talk show BET Tonight debuted with Tavis Smiley as host; in 2001, Ed Gordon replaced Smiley as host of the program.

In 1991, the network became the first black-controlled company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Starting the late 1990s, the network expanded with the launch of digital cable networks: what is now the general interest Centric originally launched as BET on Jazz (later known as BET Jazz and BET J), created originally to showcase jazz music-related programming, especially that of black jazz musicians; in 1998, it entered into a joint venture with Starz (then-owned by John Malone’s Liberty Media) to launch a multiplex service of the premium channel featuring African American-oriented movies called BET Movies: Starz! 3 (later renamed Black Starz after BET dropped out of the venture following its purchase by Viacom, then-owner of Starz rival Showtime, and now known as Starz InBlack). In 2001, the network lost its status as a black-owned business when it was bought by media conglomerateViacom for $3 billion. In 2005, Johnson retired from the network, turning over his titles as president and chief executive officer to former BET vice president Debra L. Lee.

It has had its controversies, but it is still here. Though no longer owned by a black family, it still tries to stay close to its roots. It was lucrative enough for a major network to pay huge dollars for it. Well done Robert and Sheila Johnson.

In 2001, Media conglomerate Viacom bought BET for $3 billion from its founder, Robert Johnson. Viacom was willing to pay such a high price because BET is one of the most financially successful of the cable networks.

In 2006, BET, the nation’s leading TV network dedicated to African-Americans, announced some changes in its programming. Over the years, the network has been criticized by some who say it hasn’t had enough diverse programming and too few news shows. As the cable channel entered its 26th year, BET’s new leadership is hoping to turn around that perception, and network executives say, this spring, audiences will get a sampling of the changes to come. NPR’s Nova Safo reports.

BET reported a 17 percent increase in viewers the previous year, and Hollywood trade publication Variety says BET’s expected income last year was more than $200 million, while the network only spent about 66 million on programming. BET was succeeding with a formula of mostly hip-hop videos and syndicated reruns, as well as some original reality shows such as “College Hill,” which has run for many seasons.

In a 2010 interview, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson said that she herself is “ashamed” of what the network has become. “I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids that they don’t watch it,” she said. “When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television. We had public affairs programming. We had news… I had a show called Teen Summit, we had a large variety of programming, but the problem is that then the video revolution started up… And then something started happening, and I didn’t like it at all. And I remember during those days we would sit up and watch these videos and decide which ones were going on and which ones were not. We got a lot of backlash from recording artists…and we had to start showing them. I didn’t like the way women were being portrayed in these videos.”

The channel is now in its 35th year. After making it my mission to study the programming schedule for BET over one week, and watch it for two days, I must say it has improved – but it needs to go further. It needs to do as Sheila said – It needs to feature more news, interviews, business, and educational matters. An interesting fact I note, is that in their comedy and drama, they do try to educate as well as entertain.

BET is now viewed internationally. BET International is available in over 100 countries, in  Europe, Africa and Asia. There was a fascinating debate on a popular forum when BET first landed in the UK in 2007.

“This BET is racist. Would a White Entertainment Television channel be allowed?”

It’s already allowed. The UK population 7/10 people are white. Television companies will want to get their ratings up so they will try and appeal to these white people. If you want to see WET, just turn on the tv. Blacks, asians, middle easterns are a small percentage so having programs that appeal to us won’t really boost their ratings. Now a TV company wants to come and show us the shows we have been wanting but can never get and then theres a huge uproar. As on person said above asians have over 40 channels but no one has a problem with that.
It’s not because i want to see more black actors, these black shows have a different vibe and some people like that. Why complain so much.

White entertainment TV, LOL. We should just rename most of the sky digital channels to WET 1, WET 2 etc.”

I noted “Being Mary Jane” was trending on Twitter worldwide after its premier aired on BET in the USA. I can assure you it is not only black people who were watching it. Thank you BET.

If BET was worth $3 billion in 2001, it must be worth $50 billion now.  It lost its status as a black-owned business then.  The founder Robert Johnson is worth a billion or two, but was he too quick to sell up. Look at Rupert Murdoch heading into his 90’s still at the helm of his Media & Broadcasting Empire.  Anyway, we all can still celebrate its ultimate success, and I hope Viacom gives back to the community it serves in other ways apart from entertainment.  With new up and coming channels owned by Oprah and P.Diddy – it will be fascinating to watch the upcoming battle to be the best.