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BET Founder Stepping Down to Build his NBA Team
Date: Monday, February 07, 2005
By: Michael H. Cottman

Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television who sold the company to Viacom for $3 billion five years ago, will resign from his position at BET to spend more time developing his NBA team, the Charlotte Bobcats, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.

The move was expected, since Johnson signed a five-year contract with Viacom to remain BET chairman and CEO when the media conglomerate purchased the network in late 2000, making him the first black billionaire. Debra Lee, who has served as BET's president and chief operating officer since 1996, will replace Johnson by the year's end.

"BET is in a position to be a pioneer in black-oriented news," Johnson told the Washington Post in 1985, adding that "the idea is that the programming should show blacks in dominant character roles and have as its primary interest black information, black culture, black thought and black philosophy."

But over the years, under Johnson's leadership, programming on BET has ranged from booty-shaking videos to outdated black sitcoms, the former resulting in repeated, widespread criticism. The network was often decried as lacking in commitment and creativity to airing provocative entertainment programs with engaging educational components.

Viacom counts the networks CBS, MTV, VH-1 and UPN among its holdings, and its purchase of BET, the first and largest black-owned cable network, allowed it to gain access to the hugely profitable black community.

Viacom executives, according to the Journal, say they now want to expand the variety of BET's programming.

But Alfred Edmond, editor-in-chief of Black Enterprise, said programming at BET is not likely to change simply because Johnson is leaving.

"Viacom didn't buy BET to change its programming because BET is profitable using a low-cost format," Edmond told Monday. "It's a very profitable model, and BET has one of the most profitable cable formats in the industry."

However, BET's programming could change, Edmond added, if BET feels "competitive market pressure" from emerging television stations like Maryland-based TV One, which is expected to offer viewers alternative options with its expanding roster of shows and movies. [TV One's parent company, Radio One, also owns 51 percent of Reach Media Inc., home of BlackAmericaWeb.]

Yanick Rice-Lamb, a journalism professor at Howard University and former editor of BET Weekend and Heart and Soul magazines, told that Lee was always being groomed for Johnson's job.

"It was evitable that Bob would step down, and he has passed along a lot of responsibility to Debbie, even before the Viacom deal," said Rice-Lamb, who worked with both Johnson and Lee. "She's been involved in almost every major legal decision at BET for years."

Lee has served as BET's executive vice president of Strategic Business Development; executive vice president and general counsel of BET's Legal Affairs department; corporate secretary, and president/publisher of BET's publishing division.

Rice-Lamb, who worked for BET for seven years, said it is unclear what resources will be available for programming and said she couldn't predict what BET's content would look like under Lee's leadership.

"What's unfortunate is that viewers didn't always respond to what they said they wanted to see in programming," she said in an interview Monday. "Sometimes people didn't give serious support to certain kinds of shows." Rice-Lamb said Lee, who is black, still has a number of black executives working for her who could influence future programming decisions.

Over the years, Johnson has told reporters that more black-owned companies will probably begin to sell to white companies, and that companies that are 100 percent owned by blacks will eventually become extinct. Last month, the owners of Essence magazine, who are black, sold the pioneering black women's magazine to Time Inc.

In an interview with Richard Prince, author of the "Journal-isms" column for the Maynard Institute, Johnson said, "Black businesses will have to realize that to be in business takes precedence over being black, if you're going to grow your business."

He told Prince that other black-owned businesses, such as Radio One, will eventually follow suit.

"At the end of the day, they will sell to the highest bidder" who will likely be white, Johnson said. "It's just a question of when."

In April 2001, Johnson fired talk show host Tavis Smiley from his show "BET Tonight" after Smiley offered an exclusive interview with former Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) member Sara Jane Olson, who was allegedly involved in the kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst years ago, to ABC instead of BET.

Smiley's fans surmised that Viacom had put pressure on Johnson to discharge Smiley because its network, CBS, had been snubbed. Smiley told Jet magazine at the time that he found it "curious that Mr. Johnson would move to dismiss me for selling one interview featuring a white woman to a white company, when he sold the entire network to a white company."

Because of the furor created over Smiley's firing Johnson appeared on BET and took calls from viewers.

"Tavis is a very talented individual, and I know he will land elsewhere," Johnson told audiences. "BET has some very loyal fans who see us as an important, independent voice for the African-American community. People who fear that we're controlled by Viacom should know that nothing could be further from the truth."

The following year, BET cancelled "BET Tonight," which had been hosted by Ed Gordon after Smiley's departure, along with the issues forum "Lead Story" and the youth-oriented "Teen Summit."

Johnson is also the first black businessman to buy an NBA team. Johnson owns 65% of the Bobcats; the remainder is owned by 14 investors "” five who are minorities and an investment group of nine African-Americans. Johnson also owns the WNBA team, the Charlotte Sting.

Last year, Nelly, the three-time Grammy Award-winning entertainer, joined the ownership group of Bobcats Basketball Holdings, LLC, which owns and operates the Charlotte Bobcats.

"I paid $300 million for the team," Johnson told USA Today last year. "I didn't pay in black dollars. I didn't pay in white dollars. I paid in green dollars. That's a fact of life."

The Bobcats, however, have yet to reach a deal with a corporate sponsor that wants to put its name on the $260 million sports and entertainment complex where the Bobcats will play, according to the Miami Herald.

Calls to Viacom and BET were not returned at press time.

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