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Black Buying Power:
$679 Billion (2004)
Black U.S. Population:
Top Five Black Cities
- New York
Top Five Black Metros:
- New York-New Jersey
- Los Angeles
Top Five Expenditures:
- Housing 110.2 bil.
- Food 53.8 bil.
- Cars/Trucks 28.7 bil.
- Clothing 22.0 bil.
- Health Care 17.9 bil.
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THE LATEST NEWS
founder and chairman hopes for 'second act' in media arena
(November 2, 2005) It began in 1980 in the basement of Robert Johnson's
home in Washington. Over the past 25 years, Black Entertainment Television
became successful enough to make Johnson the nation's first black
billionaire. Now, as BET celebrates its silver anniversary, Johnson is
formally stepping down from the company he sold to Viacom in 2000. Johnson
talked with The Hollywood Reporter about his legacy and what lies ahead.
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you ever anticipate 25 years ago that BET
would be this big?
Johnson: I always hoped that it would provide a platform for the
expression of black-oriented content and information that would appeal to
African-Americans and others interested in quality entertainment. I think
it met those objectives exceedingly well. I was always confident that if
you targeted the African-American consumer public with its buying power
and built an iconic brand, it would have tremendous value. I thought if
BET could grow with the cable industry as it moved into urban markets, it
would demonstrate the economic value of the black consumer marketplace.
THR: What was the turning point?
Johnson: There were several. The early support of John Malone and others
in the cable industry was one. At one point, BET was part-owned by TCI and
Time Warner. The second was the cable industry's drive to build out the
urban markets, where most African-American subscribers were. Because the
cable industry saw its future there, they had to penetrate beyond the
rural markets. The third thing was the talent that was assembled at BET,
now under (president and chief operating officer) Debra Lee. When you put
those ingredients together, it was inevitable that BET was going to be a
THR: How did the sale to Viacom in 2000 affect BET?
Johnson: When I decided to sell BET, it was based on my belief that the
market value of what I built was at its highest. BET established itself as
a unique content brand that had a strong lock on the African-American
marketplace and it had a very strong management team in place. If you were
going to sell it, it would be to someone who understood brands and how
they can grow. We talked to everybody. What I liked about Viacom was that
when Debra Lee and I met with Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin, who was
(chief operating officer) at the time, he asked me what I wanted. I said I
want to continue to be the pre-eminent African-American brand in the
world. Sumner said, 'That's exactly what I want.'
THR: Will BET benefit from Viacom's split?
Johnson: That BET would be in a conglomerate that nurtures brands like
MTV, Nickelodeon or Spike TV gave me confidence that BET would have a
long, successful history when I was ready to exit five years later. I'm
confident BET's future is brighter than ever. With the Viacom spinoff,
BET's economic value will be significantly greater because its
contribution to the cable side of the business will be that much more
important than if it were part of the combined company.
THR: Could someone build a media brand today the way you did 25 years ago?
Johnson: I think it's still possible. Meg Whitman created a brand for
eBay. If you look at the guys at Google, they did it. They launched a
brand that is iconic, a brand that has become a verb. When you're able to
do that, you have to create dynamic content for the market. It's always
tough to do it. You have to show due care and due diligence for the
audience. You're continually serving them with the kind of services and
content they want to have. It's possible, even in programming, where it
gets a little tougher with channels. But it is still very possible to do
it, and that's a tribute to entrepreneurs who know what people in Vegas
call "an emotionally engaging experience with the audience." As you get
more culture and voices shouting at you, it's tough to do it. But when you
do create that brand, it's because you've done something beneficial,
unique and desired by the marketplace.
THR: Is it a regret all the criticism that has dogged BET over the years
about the quality of the content?
Johnson: I've never felt that. The proof is in the pudding: BET is 25
years old, its ratings are higher than they've ever been, its brand is far
more penetrated in the psyches of African-Americans and others than it's
ever been, its monetary value has ever been. It will be around long after
I'm gone. I never felt that criticism was directed at BET per se. I felt
the criticism was that many African-Americans wanted BET to be everything
to everybody. You couldn't do that with one cable channel. We did as best
we could. We did sports, news, children's programming, gospel, jazz all on
one channel. Few channels did all things. Most cable channels are more
targeted. We had to run the gamut. A lot of that frustration felt that
African-Americans wanted more choice. We had to deal with that.
THR: Are you completely out of the media business now?
Johnson: As an entrepreneur, you never say never. I know in my mind I have
a second act. I'm putting the script in place and getting the actors in
place in the not-too-distant future, and the curtain will go up that I'm
involved in it. It will be exciting and fun. The song says it's never as
good as the first time, but it's going to be exciting. Some of it will be
in entertainment. I own the (NBA team) Charlotte Bobcats -- basketball,
even that has an entertainment component. I always stay close to the
people in this industry.
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