The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
On Our Site
  • The New Guard
  • Business' bold new face
  • Post 200 front
  •   His Way

    By Peter Perl
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 14, 1997; Page W08

    On the 44th floor of New York's World Trade Center last May, in a posh conference room overlooking the Hudson River, Robert L. Johnson stood and delivered the BET pitch.

    Seated at rows of banquet tables before him, some 80 Wall Street stock analysts already knew Johnson as the founder of Black Entertainment Television and BET Holdings Inc., the first and largest black-owned firm to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange. But he was here to sell a new and dazzling vision of BET -- not merely as America's original black cable TV network, now reaching 52 million homes, but rather as a rapidly growing media conglomerate worthy of expanding investment into the next century.

    He had a soft-spoken yet commanding presence as he rattled off a long list of new ventures in television, publishing and leisure activities that would position Washington-based BET to become the dominant multimedia "entertainment brand" for African Americans and people of color all over the world -- essentially, the black Disney.

    Johnson told the analysts that BET's basic cable network remained so lucrative that he would have about $300 million in cash, with virtually no debt, to invest in new businesses. With that, he emphasized, BET planned not just to dominate, but to monopolize the field.

    "Our goal is not to see another black programming service exist," he said. "So, if DirecTV is created, we are on DirecTV. If Primestar is created, we are on Primestar. If EchoStar or any other distribution platform is created, we rush to get in, not only with our core BET channel, but with our flanker-brand channels of jazz, movies or pay-per-view. The same with the Internet . . . We have an exclusive contract with Microsoft to be their sole provider of African American content on the Internet. So we are going to brand the Internet, much the way we branded cable some 16 years ago . . .

    "There has not been, in my opinion, a black brand of any significance that has penetrated the psyche of black America, probably since Motown, other than BET. And, of course, Motown went on to become a universal brand."

    Johnson projected BET's investor relations video across a giant screen. It opened with thunderous music and an image of molten gold pouring into the form of the BET logo. The giant image was then burned onto a map of the United States as the voice-over said the company was prepared to "put its brand on black America and the $427 billion in black American buying power."

    Then an American flag blanketed the screen and there appeared President Clinton, sitting at his desk with a flag behind him in the Old Executive Office Building. As he looked squarely into the camera, the leader of the free world touted BET's newest channel: "BET on Jazz will air around the world," Clinton said, "creating new audiences for that quintessential American art form." Using the presidential plug for a new BET product -- even if it was only eight seconds long -- was a violation of a White House policy against the use of the chief executive's image for commercial purposes. But it made for quite a sales pitch, and Bob Johnson is nothing if not a premier salesman.

    Smart, charming, politically astute and intensely ambitious, Bob Johnson has defined Black Entertainment Television as the exclusive purveyor of African American-oriented entertainment on cable. With $500,000 seed money from one cable giant and $10 million more invested by other industry players, he has built BET in less than 20 years into a company whose worth approaches $1 billion. And if he achieves the ambition he outlined to the Wall Street analysts, he will extend BET's reach much further into African American life:

    Television viewers will watch not just BET, but also BET on Jazz, a music-video channel; BET's Action Pay-Per-View, featuring urban-oriented films; and BET Movies/STARZ!3, another movie channel. Readers will pore over BET Weekend, a monthly Sunday newspaper insert, along with BET's monthly magazine, Emerge. Shoppers will order from a BET line of clothing, and pay with BET Visa cards from BET Financial Services. Diners will flock to a BET on Jazz restaurant in downtown Washington, and to BET Soundstage, a music-video-themed restaurant whose protoype, in Landover, will be replicated in no fewer than 20 places nationwide. Vacationers will go to a BET nightclub at Disney's Pleasure Island in Orlando, and to a BET-Hilton casino in Las Vegas. Computer buffs will use MSBET, a joint multimedia venture with Microsoft.

    Even with few of these projects beyond the startup stage, Johnson is already among the richest and most influential people in American media. His personal holdings in BET are conservatively valued at well over $300 million. He built a $2.5 million home with tennis court and swimming pool in the exclusive Forest Hills section of Northwest, and last year purchased a $4.3 million estate on 132 rolling acres in Middleburg, where he keeps a stable of nine horses. He and his wife, Sheila, have given generously to organizations including the United Negro College Fund, Howard University and the Levine School of Music, often promoting the causes along with BET.

    But for all that Johnson has achieved, he still draws criticism from within the black community. Some of it focuses on BET: that it offers little beyond music videos and caters to lowbrow interests; that it rarely embodies its founder's promise to project positive images of African Americans; that while it dominates its niche of the market, it is mostly junk TV. As for Johnson personally, there are people who say that he must fulfill obligations that are particular to black success -- that he should project himself as a role model and provide more help to other budding black entrepreneurs; that he should do more to "give back" to "the community."

    To such criticism, he has had a succinct answer:

    "I don't want to be seen as a hero to younger people. I want to be seen as a good solid business guy who goes out and does a job, and the job is to build a business," Johnson told a C-SPAN interviewer in 1992. "In the black community, there's always a rush to see a `role model,' but we need less hero worship. There are thousands of white businessmen who never get asked, `Are you a hero?' " and never are asked what they have given back to the white community.

    "What are my responsibilities to black people at large? If I help my family get over and deal with the problems they might confront, then I have achieved that one goal that is my responsibility to society at large."

    So he does not give commencement speeches, and he turns down most other speaking invitations. He has created jobs for hundreds of young black people who otherwise might not be employed in television, but he is quick to stress that he is a capitalist and not a social service provider. He remains first and always a businessman, and he unapologetically runs BET Holdings with the unwavering goal of maximizing profit. Among other reasons, he owes it to his shareholders.

    Now Johnson is taking his company private. On September 11, he surprised many on Wall Street by announcing that he and his original investor and partner -- John Malone, head of the nation's largest cable company, Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) -- would offer $300 million to buy back the roughly 35 percent of BET they don't already own.

    Even if Johnson does take BET private, he is unlikely to resolve the conflicts between his own vision and other people's expectations. This may be an inescapable part of his enterprise: BET is in the image business, and it dominates a corner of a powerful medium. The company's franchise is so strong and so visible that people are bound to look hard at what he does with it.

    Two years ago, Johnson suggested that The Washington Post Magazine profile him and his company, but since then he has had second thoughts. Citing the impending takeover and his privacy, Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story. "I don't want to do a personal story," Johnson said in explaining his wishes. "I don't want to do a story about the guy who has these two houses and a dog and so on. Or about starting out in a log cabin . . . or about being a protege" of white investors.

    Over the last two decades, Johnson has been the subject of various rags-to-riches stories, some of which irritated him because he thought they exaggerated the humbleness of his origins or attributed too much of his success to Malone, who is white.

    In fact, those stories rarely dwelled on just how tough, opportunistic and single-minded Johnson had to be to build his business. Nor did they touch upon certain chapters in the story behind BET's growth -- chapters that suggest that, at the least, Johnson has been willing to throw a few sharp elbows during his rise.

    The three original vice presidents of BET -- including Johnson's sister and a woman with whom he had a personal relationship -- sued him in 1992, charging that he cheated them out of millions of dollars worth of BET stock he had promised. Johnson denied the allegations and fought the cases vigorously before paying some $4 million to settle them in 1993 and last year. The cases generated thousands of pages of contentious, sometimes bitter deposition testimony by Johnson and the former executives.

    Johnson also fought vigorously when 65 technicians and engineers tried to organize a union at BET in 1993. Johnson and BET management illegally threatened to eliminate the workers' jobs, according to a ruling last year by a National Labor Relations Board judge. After the workers voted to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, BET laid off or cut the hours of 14 union supporters, according to the judge's ruling, which ordered the workers reinstated. BET is appealing that order.

    In addition to declining an interview, Johnson also asked friends and family not to speak about him. This account is based on interviews with more than 50 friends, family members, business associates, current and former BET employees, stock analysts and media critics, and on court, property, corporate and Federal Election Commission records.

    Among other things, the records and interviews portray a man who has built, in a relatively short time, an extraordinarily powerful and varied network of friends and supporters -- a network that reaches all the way to the Oval Office. During the Clinton campaign years, Johnson and other BET executives donated a total of $455,208 to the Democratic Party and its candidates. Johnson has welcomed the president to two of the many Democratic fund-raisers he has hosted at his home in Forest Hills. He has become an A-list political figure, earning several White House ceremonial and advisory appointments. He has been invited to meet South African President Nelson Mandela, and to attend such exclusive events as the recent state dinner for Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

    So when Johnson asked the White House last year if Clinton would tape a video tribute in honor of Johnson's receiving an award from the National Cable Television Association, the president agreed. Clinton did so, said White House spokesman Barry Toiv, because he makes such tapes for selected prominent Americans and because Johnson "is a longtime friend of the president." But White House officials were not aware that a segment of the tribute had been spliced into BET's Wall Street presentation, which Toiv said violated a strict policy of long standing. After inquiries made during research for this article, the White House counsel's office sent the company a letter last month, asking that the tape featuring Clinton no longer be used to promote BET.

    Robert Johnson was born on April 8, 1946, the ninth of 10 children, in Hickory, Miss., a hamlet where his family owned land that had been purchased by his great-grandfather Filmore, a freed slave. Johnson's father chopped and sold timber and his mother taught school, but like countless other Southern blacks, Archie and Edna Johnson followed the Illinois Central Railroad north in search of a better life. They landed in Freeport, Ill., a predominantly white and working-class town of dairy farms and factories, where they both found jobs.

    "I worked at Burgess Battery with Bobby's mother. Carbon dust and dirt, and things got blacker than a stack of cats," recalls Geraldine Jones, 75, a family friend and neighbor. "Bobby worked there. His mother got him on for summer work, and he said, `Uh-uh,' that is not for him. Factory is not the place for him. Not that he was above it, but he just knew it wasn't for him."

    Bobby Johnson, as everyone called him, saw early on that his future lay beyond Freeport. "We were a couple of guys who were set on getting out," says Preston Pearson, a childhood friend who went on to fame in the National Football League. "You didn't want to be there. It had nothing for you."

    The Johnsons lived on the predominantly black east side of town, in a succession of old rental houses. Archie supplemented his factory jobs by operating his own junkyard and working as a janitor. The family was never destitute or hungry, although Bobby would later joke that with 10 kids, he had to push his way to the dinner table to make sure he got his share. Like most of the other Johnson kids, he was fairly enterprising, delivering papers, mowing lawns, cleaning out tents at local fairs. He was small but athletic, and spent much of his free time playing basketball at an old cinder-block community center.

    At Freeport High School, he was an honor student, quiet and somewhat shy but moving comfortably in a white environment; he seemed to have a certain effortless quality, a sense of himself. Hard work and education were key Johnson family values, but none of Bobby's older siblings had gone through college. "We had no role models when it came to going to college," says Pearson. "Most of the guys I grew up with are still there, doing the same things they were doing 30 years ago."

    Pearson got a scholarship to the University of Illinois, and the next year, Bobby followed. "He was small, thin, nice fellow. And he still had his country ways," says Virgill Hemphill, Johnson's freshman-year roommate. "He was not overly slick, overly smooth. He was kind of innocent and naive. His strength was being able to talk to different types of people. I went to Freeport with him, and he could communicate with the regular people and with the suit-and-tie people."

    Bob Johnson did well at Illinois, studying history, holding several work-study jobs, and living and partying at Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity to which Pearson introduced him. He thought he might become a teacher, or maybe go into government. Then he met, and fell for, Sheila Crump, a pretty cheerleader and gifted violinist from the Chicago suburbs, a proper young woman, the daughter of a successful doctor.

    After graduation, in 1968, Johnson was admitted to Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs through an affirmative action program that gave him a full scholarship plus expenses. The two-year course of study was aimed at a career in public service, and it drew some of the best and brightest -- his classmates included future government officials Anthony Lake and Richard Holbrooke and author Taylor Branch -- but Johnson dropped out after the first semester.

    "Academics were extremely difficult" for him initially, recalls his former housemate Herman Penner, "and he was really in love." Sheila, three years younger, was back at Illinois, and Johnson was running up huge phone bills. "He felt some obligation" to stay because Princeton had "invested in him," and he had been committed to public service, says Nye Stevens, a former dean. Still, Johnson left Princeton and married Sheila on the Illinois campus in 1969.

    Johnson confided to some friends and family that because of his background he felt he had to prove himself to Sheila's parents. He eventually returned to Princeton and earned his master's degree in public administration in 1972. He'd considered the diplomatic corps, but his distaste for the Vietnam War helped override that possibility.

    Networking artfully through Princeton colleagues, Johnson came to Washington. He worked first at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, then at the Washington Urban League, whose director, Sterling Tucker, was helping to lead the struggle for District home rule. Johnson impressed Tucker greatly because "he could think micro-ly and macro-ly," mastering the small details of a political campaign and "thinking like a visionary" in pursuing larger goals, recalls Tucker, who went on to become the first D.C. Council chairman.

    Since his Princeton days, Johnson had been talking about the possibilities for black power that lay in television, and cable in particular. "He saw the value and the potential and the way it could be used for good -- for politics, for economics, for a better quality of life," Tucker says. Johnson pursued that interest further when he became press secretary for D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, who says Johnson was "the clearest thinker" on his staff about the importance of networking with diverse groups to build a political base.

    "The first time I ever heard of cable was out of his mouth," says Fauntroy. "Bob was really up on cable. He was looking for ways to do what I wanted to do." The Congressional Black Caucus was in its early days then, and, he says, Johnson told him how black leaders could "be in one room, and be sent out on satellite, and be in the homes of all these people. And I said, `Whew! Is that right?' "

    Johnson's timing was perfect. In 1976, he left Fauntroy's office to work as a lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), where he got to know the industry just as it was growing into a force that would revolutionize American television. And in 1978, at the age of 32, he came up with the idea that would make his fortune.

    He was accompanying a businessman named Ken Silverman to the office of Rep. Claude Pepper of Florida to pitch the concept of a cable network for the elderly. Although that idea failed, Johnson asked Silverman if he could borrow his proposal, and Johnson adapted it for black viewers.

    At the time, established media giants such as Time Inc. and Warner Communications and wildcatters like Ted Turner were launching satellites and wiring the nation in a bold challenge to the dominant networks, but with little regard for black audiences. As the corporate players competed for lucrative contracts in the nation's heavily minority cities, they immediately saw the political benefits in offering a cable channel that featured programming especially for black viewers.

    If Bob Johnson had not been there first, this new industry might have had to invent him.

    At the NCTA's 1979 convention, Johnson bumped into Bob Rosencrans outside a men's room at the Las Vegas Hilton. Johnson was still at the NCTA, as a vice president, because although he had a great idea, he had nothing else. Now, what he needed most was time -- satellite time. Rosencrans, president of UA-Columbia Cablevision, owned some unused slots on one of the three cable TV satellites then in the heavens. As a cable operator, Rosencrans needed programs to beef up his local franchises.

    "I just said, `Bob, you're on. Let's go,' " Rosencrans recalls. "I don't think we even charged him. We knew he couldn't afford much, and for us, it was a plus because it gave us more ammunition to sell cable . . . The industry was not attracting minority customers."

    So at 11 p.m. on January 8, 1980, BET bounced its first signal off an RCA satellite that reached 3.8 million homes served by Rosencrans's franchises. The first BET show was a 1974 African safari movie, "Visit to a Chief's Son." Johnson had to drive to Arlington to watch it because the District did not have cable.

    Initially, BET aired for only two hours on Friday nights, but it was a breakthrough. "The cable industry was using Bob as its minority poster boy," says Dwight Ellis, vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, who is black and whose organization was threatened by cable's growth. Johnson received his first crucial financing from John Malone: $380,000 through a loan, plus $120,000 to purchase 20 percent of BET. Then he patched together a television network and staff.

    Johnson's colleague Vivian Goodier, who had worked with him on his original BET business plan, came from the NCTA. "They went out of here as a team," recalls former NCTA president Tom Wheeler, who gave Johnson a $15,000 consulting contract upon his departure to help him get started. Johnson also hired his secretary, Carol Coody, whom he paid $14,000, and his older sister Polly. Polly Johnson had not finished college, but she had bookkeeping and financial experience, so Johnson hired her for $25,000 to keep BET's books.

    They rented a small office in Georgetown, and while Sheila Johnson taught music, her husband poured his life into the new venture, selling BET to advertisers, to cable operators, to potential subscribers. At cable conventions and industry shows, the major players would put on huge presentations, says Wheeler, while "Bob and Vivian would be manning card tables -- a little 10-by-10 booth, with a collapsible table and a display -- and they would tell people about BET."

    According to depositions given in the 1992 lawsuits against Johnson, the four-person BET hierarchy worked long hours, nights and weekends, and occasionally retired to a Georgetown bar, where Johnson sometimes would sketch a picture of a rosy future, of a day when BET would actually turn a profit. A day when BET would become a public company and they would all get rich.

    Acknowledging that they all were working hard at relatively low pay, Johnson told the women he would give them shares in BET, the three testified. In his own deposition, Johnson said he told them that they couldn't have voting control of any of BET's 100 shares because of his agreement with Malone, but they could have "beneficial interest" equal to the value of BET stock.

    Johnson executed "voting trust agreements" with all three women; one share each for Polly and Carol, three shares for Vivian. As BET grew, they became vice presidents of the company, but as it grew, so did trouble between them and the company's chief.

    Vivian Goodier quit in 1982 because she had "a personal relationship with Johnson," she said at her deposition. Johnson, in the portion of his deposition on file, did not discuss the nature of his relationship with her. The two had "discussed their perception that their personal relationship was interfering" with the business, Goodier said, and when she left BET, she believed that she still owned the interest in her three shares.

    Coody and Polly Johnson stayed at BET until late 1985, and their departure -- Johnson would contend that he fired them; they would contend that they quit -- eventually led to the case of Johnson v. Johnson, which fills nine volumes and nearly three feet of shelf space at D.C. Superior Court.

    All three women sued Johnson the year after BET went public on the New York Stock Exchange, raising more than $70 million. They alleged breach of trust, charging that Johnson had reneged on his voting trust agreements and owed them millions. Johnson denied the charges, asserting in court filings that they lost their stock rights when they left the company but were seeking "to cash in on the success" of BET and "reap some of the rewards of defendant Johnson's hard work."

    Johnson testified that he had fired his sister after a series of "troubling incidents." She had charged $28,000 worth of personal items to a BET credit card, which she later reimbursed, he said. She thought of BET as a "family business" and had trouble separating her roles as sister and employee, he said. She was "always attempting to challenge the authority, my authority . . . questioning the decisions I would make . . . just plain attempting to undermine the management." The last straw, he said, came when she failed to produce a check he needed on time. When he questioned her about it, she "replied with a profanity." He wrote her a letter telling her not to set foot on BET premises without notice, changed the lock on her office door, and did not speak to her for several years, according to court papers.

    In her deposition, Polly Johnson said she had actually quit her job, which by then paid nearly $60,000 a year, because she could no longer stand working for her brother. She described the credit card charges as a misunderstanding, and said she considered BET a family business because her brother had told her in 1979 that "if we make it, `we' meaning Bob Johnson and myself at that time, if we work hard, make this successful, our family will not have to worry. We can do things for them." She said he subjected her to verbal abuse and mental cruelty in part because she "complained to him about his women" and said he was wrong to be "dating the staff." Her brother told her she was "crazy" and imagining those relationships, she said.

    Johnson, in an internal 1986 BET memo filed in court, offered a severance package to his sister that included continued salary, reaffirmation of her stock holding and other benefits. "All that BET is seeking in return is that Polly sign a document agreeing to refrain from any action, verbal or otherwise, that attacks the integrity or personal reputation of BET, BET staff," the memo said. His sister would not sign, according to court documents.

    Coody, in her deposition, also disputed that she had been fired. Johnson had testified that he fired her for insubordination and for failing to attend a crucial business function. Coody said she resigned, even after receiving a "superior" evaluation and a 22 percent pay raise, because she found Johnson impossible to work for. He asked her to "spy" on his sister, she said, "and keep him informed of whether she had any conflicts in the office." She also said "Mr. Johnson's affairs were demoralizing everyone at BET." Johnson, in his testimony on file, did not confirm or contradict the assertion that he had affairs at the office. Coody said, "I felt that Mr. Johnson was becoming paranoid, particularly after he and his sister had an argument that resulted in her resignation. All of this made me feel pressured and stressed out . . ."

    After months of motions and counter-motions, Johnson and the women settled the cases before trial. He paid $900,000 each to his sister and Coody in 1993 and declared the $1.8 million expense in filings with the SEC. The larger claim for Goodier's three shares was to be heard separately in U.S. District Court, where it was scheduled for trial last year until Johnson settled it for more than $2 million. None of the parties would comment on the cases.

    When Johnson took BET public, his windfall made the company seem like an overnight success. That success, however, came only after Johnson had spent more than a decade selling, struggling, lobbying, fighting and learning to run with the wolves of American show business and finance.

    Needing capital to expand his programming, Johnson had raised $10 million in the early 1980s by selling chunks of BET to a division of Time Inc. and Taft Broadcasting. But he kept 52 percent voting control of BET and kept pushing to expand his reach. BET every year was being carried on more and more cable systems, potentially reaching millions more viewers, and signing on a growing list of national advertisers. All this, even though BET's viewership could not yet raise even a blip on the Nielsen ratings screen.

    BET lost money for its first six years, partly because it was receiving one of the lowest monthly subscriber fees in the cable industry. Networks are paid such fees by local cable franchises, based on each network's ratings and potential for attracting new cable customers. BET was earning only 2 cents per subscriber, while major networks such as TNT, USA and TBS were getting 15 to 20 cents.

    Johnson blamed BET's troubles partly on race: The industry "undervalued" black consumers, he argued, despite research showing that they watched at least 50 percent more television than whites, had hundreds of billions in disposable income, and tended to be particularly loyal to brand names of the advertisers who reached them.

    Johnson recruited some black performers, among them Tim Reid, then starring in the CBS sitcom "Frank's Place," to help him lobby for higher fees. Reid remembers that Johnson was particularly irritated that BET's fee was among the lowest, lower even than the Weather Channel's. Johnson argued that with higher fees, he would be able to deliver higher-quality programming.

    "I believe in what he is trying to do," says Reid, who became Johnson's friend and business partner. "He has an uncanny ability to go into a business situation, and despite people trying to make it personal . . . whether it is racial or about money, Bob plays it strictly with straight-ahead determination, commitment to his goal." Says Reid, "You can't shake Bob. In all the years I have been with him, in business, socially or on vacation, I have never seen him shaken."

    Johnson won his battle for higher fees, which jumped from 2.5 cents to 5 cents in 1989, and he was able to lock in annual increases that have lifted the fees to 12 cents and will raise them to 15.5 cents over the next five years. BET today is watched by an average of 142,000 households in any given minute, according to the most recent Nielsen data, which ranks it 19th among 28 cable channels tracked. Subscriber fees generated $50.4 million of BET's revenue last year, while advertising and infomercial revenue, increasing at nearly 20 percent annually, reached more than $60 million.

    As BET grew, it also drifted from Johnson's original vision of its goals.

    When he started the company, Johnson talked about growing up in the 1950s, when the media offered virtually no black characters except Amos and Andy on television and Stepin Fetchit in the movies. And even in the early 1980s, he said, there were still few blacks in strong and serious roles, which he said he hoped to help remedy.

    But as he built his business, Johnson wanted to keep his expenses to a minimum. He could fill the airwaves with music videos that he got for free from recording companies. Black sitcom reruns, infomercials and old movies cheaply filled many more hours.

    At BET's fifth-anniversary gala in 1985, Johnson told a Post interviewer that he did not yet have the money to produce original programming, but that in coming years he would make BET soap operas, variety shows and dramas to provide outlets for black writers, directors, producers and artists. He also said he would beef up BET's news operation because white-dominated media were not doing an adequate job. "BET is in a position to be a pioneer in black-oriented news," he said.

    Later, Johnson also declared: "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."

    When TV Guide took stock of BET in 1990, it said: "It's hard to argue with success, but some observers are beginning to raise the question of quality. Is making money enough? Is the channel offering its viewers anything stimulating or innovative? As it embarks on its second decade, the network is beginning to answer those criticisms. It's beginning to show clear signs that it's ready to grow up."

    But since then, BET has not. It has discontinued almost all the new programming cited by TV Guide and virtually done away with its news operation and most of its public affairs and original programming. In Johnson's judgment, the cost outweighed the benefit. "We do not let our vision write a check that our bank account can't cash," he has said.

    Music videos -- the good, the bad, the sexually explicit and the gangsta-style -- still occupy more than 60 percent of BET's programming time, supplemented by gospel and religious programs, infomercials and, currently, the comedy rerun "227." Johnson and others at BET initially were reluctant to show hip-hop and rap videos they considered sexually suggestive or gangsta-like. But once MTV and other providers broke the barrier, BET followed suit.

    "BET News" had some notable moments -- such as the first O.J. Simpson interview after his acquittal, which drew an estimated 3 million viewers -- but it no longer exists as a weekly show. Instead, the news usually occupies the first few minutes of "BET Tonight," an entertainment-oriented interview program. Serious original programming is primarily confined to Sunday, featuring the 30-minute "Real Business"; "Lead Story," a top-quality half-hour news panel; and "Our Voices," a topical talk show that has been cut back from daily to once a week. The only other surviving public affairs show is "Teen Summit," an ambitious 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon that combines teenage discussions with musical diversions of varying taste.

    Within BET, few are proud of the reliance on lowbrow videos. BET's vice president for programming, Lydia Cole, told a music conference last June that she does not let her young daughters watch: "I rate television for myself, and I rate television for my children myself. We don't watch BET. I'm concerned about the images portrayed of young girls."

    Johnson has encouraged the belief, as one BET performer puts it, that "if we can make enough money on the `booty-shakers,' then we can use the profits to produce quality shows and news." Over the years, Johnson's network has experimented, yet inevitably pulled the plug on a variety of shows: dramas, discussion shows for men and for women, a dating game, a children's show and more. He also gave up after five years on his pet project, YSB (for Young Sisters and Brothers), the first national lifestyle magazine for African American youth. The magazine earned praise for its wholesome and serious content and built its circulation to 115,000, but was losing $1.9 million a year. Similarly, Emerge, a well-regarded monthly, lost enough money that Johnson said he would fold it in 1994. He ended up selling 55 percent ownership for $2.8 million but continues to run it.

    Johnson makes no apology for his reluctance to gamble on entertainment products that don't generate enough advertiser support. Instead, he stresses that he wants to rely on what is already proven to sell. "We are not reinventing the wheel," he has often told BET's staff. "We are just painting it black."

    At the new BETSoundstage in Landover, Bob and Sheila Johnson are running a $150-per-person fund-raiser and auction to benefit the U.S. Equestrian Team. Their daughter, Paige, a sixth grader at Sidwell Friends School, is a champion rider who hopes someday to be an Olympian, so they've arranged a BET-USET extravaganza, highlighted by a frenetic live fashion show featuring Neiman Marcus models. BET has gotten Neiman -- in exchange for this cross-promotion -- to donate thousands of dollars' worth of jewels and clothing for the auction.

    BET Soundstage is literally divided in half this October night -- by a red velvet rope. On one side, an all-black dinner crowd, mostly from Prince George's County, is eating and drinking and watching the 50 large television monitors. Tonight, however, they are showing not music videos but horse-and-music videos, featuring USET riders and Paige Johnson, who is shown in slow motion atop her galloping mount, Flirtatious.

    On the other side of the velvet rope, a predominantly white and decidedly upper-crust crowd is downing cocktails and eating shrimp and roast beef from buffet tables. American, British and German equestrians, some wearing their riding outfits and boots, are chatting avidly about horses. Each side of the BET Soundstage is watching the horse videos -- and each other.

    These are the two worlds of Robert Johnson: on one side, his target audience of black viewers and consumers; on the other, the wealthier white realm that has been his source of capital and the partnerships that have launched virtually all his ventures -- with TCI, Microsoft, Disney, Blockbuster, Hilton and others. His business method, in large part, is rooted in his skill in moving smoothly within both these worlds.

    Johnson's varied undertakings in the District are prime evidence; he is plugged in with key black political figures and with white civic leaders. After he launched BET, Johnson assembled a formidable team of predominantly black and politically influential investors to win the District's cable franchise in 1984. Minority ownership was a crucial criterion in the competition. Johnson had already developed a political friendship with Mayor Marion Barry, and he also campaigned skillfully to persuade the D.C. Council to choose his team from among the three competing minority-owned companies.

    But his firm, District Cablevision Inc., failed to deliver what Johnson promised. DCI had pledged to build a $130 million system, wiring the city in four years, delivering 78 channels, providing local studios in each ward and other benefits -- for a basic service fee of $1.95 a month. But DCI fell hopelessly behind, never finished wiring the city, and offered only 54 channels and escalating fees. Instead of providing the city a Cadillac at VW prices, one official remarked then, Johnson delivered the reverse.

    Although the competition had been based largely on the requirement of minority ownership, less than a year later Johnson announced that DCI could not fund the system without selling control of the franchise to a non-minority: John Malone's TCI, which bought 75 percent ownership. Even after the change, Washington's cable system was blistered in government reports for poor performance, shoddy work and bad customer service.

    Johnson also reneged on his agreement not to interfere with employees who might seek to form unions, according to former D.C. Council member William Lightfoot and Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO Chairman Joslyn Williams, both of whom served on the city's Cable Television Commission. "I supported him and I felt personally betrayed," Williams says. "I think the guy is devoid of scruples. I guess that is strong language, but I found the man was not to be trusted."

    While Barry was mayor, Johnson cultivated their relationship. He served as an unpaid public relations consultant, lent the mayor his beach house in Delaware in 1989 during a period of public allegations about the mayor's drug use -- and then led a group of advisers who met with Barry the day after his 1990 drug arrest to try to persuade the mayor to quit. In the 1990 campaign, Johnson, who had been Barry's finance co-chairman, jumped ship to work on the mayoral effort of his former boss, Fauntroy. He had also discussed the possibility of backing a mayoral bid by his friend Jesse Jackson. (Johnson in 1995 personally paid an $80,000 fine levied against Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.)

    Johnson's estrangement from Barry did not help him when Johnson made one of his boldest business proposals ever, in 1994: trying to buy part ownership of Abe Pollin's Washington Bullets basketball team as part of the deal to build the new MCI Center. Johnson had long coveted a National Basketball Association franchise, with visions of broadcasting on BET and marketing it as "black America's team."

    In making his pitch to Pollin and city business and government leaders, Johnson argued that in a majority-black city and majority-black sport, it made sense to have some black ownership -- his. When Pollin and city officials refused his bid, he offered to build the new arena himself, sued to stop the Pollin deal and hired a Republican lobbyist to try to block it on Capitol Hill.

    Johnson's unsuccessful efforts did change the arena deal significantly -- with the city's finances deteriorating, Pollin eventually agreed to build the $200 million facility himself. But for his effort, Johnson received bitter denunciations from various white and some black community leaders (and from Post editorials) for injecting racial politics into the arena project.

    Now, three years after they tangled, Bob Johnson and Abe Pollin have become friends. It turns out that Johnson's Middleburg estate, Salamander Farm, overlooks Pollin's house. When Bob and Sheila moved in with Paige, who is 11, and their son, Brett, 8, Pollin and his wife, Irene, invited them over to meet the neighbors. By all accounts, a good time was had by all.

    He's a very rich guy, but in the eyes of some, he's still just a black guy. Bob Johnson will describe himself this way when he talks about the racism that remains in America. Once, he sat in his Jaguar at the airport and a white woman got in the back seat, thinking he was a chauffeur; another time a worker on Johnson's own property mistook him for a stable hand.

    And there was the time, in 1988, when Johnson was in New York to make a deal with HBO and was staying at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where he said he was forcibly detained by hotel staff and police because of a report that a black man had committed a crime there. Johnson sued the Hyatt for $2 million for personal suffering; the hotel contended that any harm was "caused in whole or in part by the acts, behavior and conduct of the plaintiff." They settled the case out of court, and neither side would discuss it.

    The way for African Americans to overcome racism, Johnson has said, is to achieve economic power. And to achieve real power, he adds, black businesses have to explore partnerships with white-owned companies. His business plan, specifically, requires deep-pocketed partners. While his basic cable channel is a rock-solid money machine, his other ventures -- especially his national restaurant chain and his Vegas casino -- remain risky.

    "You simply cannot get big anymore by being 100 percent black-owned anything," Johnson said in his Wall Street speech last May. He preached of the dangers to black businesses in an age of increasing corporate takeovers and concentration of ownership, usually in white hands. To grow, Johnson said, he had tried to form partnerships with two of the nation's largest black media entrepreneurs, Earl Graves, owner of Black Enterprise magazine, and John Johnson, the founder and CEO of Ebony and Jet magazines. Neither was interested.

    "Unless black companies get big -- and you either get big by consolidating among yourselves or bringing in partners from outside to help you exploit your position -- I can see a day where there probably won't be any major black-owned companies in the media," he told the Wall Street group.

    Bob Johnson cited the venerable John Johnson in particular as a likely casualty, telling the stock analysts that Johnson Publications Inc., a privately held firm, would likely not survive long after its founder dies, because of estate taxes and the loss of his expertise.

    John Johnson, 79, said in an interview that after he heard about Bob Johnson's comments, "I called him up and cussed him out. I said, `Really now, how dare you? You just got started, and I've been number one for 50 years. I am the biggest in my field. I don't want to be in the white field.'

    "My mother told me, `Son, don't be too greedy,' " John Johnson said. "I think Bob has a good situation. I don't know why he is not satisfied. He dominates on cable, and as far as I am concerned he should be satisfied and not try to take over the universe." He added, "I admire Bob Johnson. He has enormous ability and agility in moving around, but you can move too fast. The graveyard is full of people who moved too fast."

    This autumn, Bob Johnson returned to Freeport, as he does at least once a year. Most of his family still lives there, but the town he left 33 years ago holds little else for him. The houses he grew up in have been torn down. The Burgess Battery factory is a dark, shuttered Superfund toxic waste site. The cinder-block community center where he shot hoops is bricked up.

    This trip, Johnson chartered a jet, picked up brothers Danny and Jimmy in Racine, Wis., and joined brother Billy in Freeport for some squirrel hunting in the lowlands along the Mississippi. Their father, who died two years ago, taught them how to hunt squirrel and rabbit with 12-gauge shotguns and .22-caliber rifles. While he was in town, Bob also visited his mother, who is 84 now. Edna Johnson lives in a pleasant house that Bob bought for $30,000 in 1980, after he started BET, and after her divorce from Archie.

    Johnson comes back partly for a respite from the demands of his position and for relief from other people's expectations. But even here he cannot quite escape. Near his old neighborhood is the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Campus, a handsome two-story multiservice center built with more than $2.5 million raised from businesses, charities and private contributions. It provides day care, tutoring, job training and other services to more than 1,000 families in a low-income neighborhood. It is also nearly $1 million in debt and has been forced to cut staff.

    Johnson has become the target of a concerted community effort to get him to visit and make a major contribution. He and Sheila have already made a donation to the King Campus, but Freeport is looking for something more. Civic groups have written and called him at BET. The local newspaper, the Journal-Standard, wrote an editorial last September saying that community leaders have been remiss in not honoring Johnson and inviting him to come speak to the town's youth. The Rev. Charles Collins, CEO of the King Campus, says the town should intensify its effort and "show Bob what we are doing to create business . . . show him how we are trying to create more Bob Johnsons."

    The director of the King center is Tracy Johnson, Bob's first cousin. Tracy Johnson admires his cousin's achievements deeply, but he also believes that the leaders of Freeport are wrong in assuming that Bob is under some moral obligation to be a benefactor. Tracy Johnson believes Freeport should change its approach and make Bob a business proposition -- perhaps something like a BET celebrity golf tournament. "They have to use some angles that work for Bob as a businessman," Tracy says. "He does not just give out of his heart. He wants to see that we are empowering African Americans in his home town. I have never seen Bob give just out of his heart. He's a businessman."

    Because of the business he's in, he is also held to the expectations of a broader community. The quality of BET's programming will continue to spark disagreement among viewers -- and non-viewers. "I respect the man. What he has done is formidable and appreciated," says Dwight Ellis of the National Association of Broadcasters. He gives Johnson credit for supporting such projects as Emerge and BET's only serious Hollywood film, last year's "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored." But Ellis also says BET's contribution to the culture falls far short of John Johnson's. "Johnson Publications has had, among black people, a level of respect and a connectedness to the values, the positive values of being black in America, that unfortunately BET does not.

    "Does Bob Johnson have to operate by a different standard than a white guy? Yes. And unfortunately that is always the case" with major black entrepreneurs, Ellis says. "They have a responsibility whether they like it or not. Since we do not control or rule the world as white men do, we must always be aware that what we do impacts on a larger group of people. We can talk about individuals and not be conscious about the whole race, but to be really responsible, you can't."

    James Winston, director of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, says it is unfair to hold Johnson or BET to such a standard. "He is one company, and he can't be everything to everyone. When you have only one company with his degree of success, everyone wants him to meet their needs. D.C. has half a dozen black radio stations with different tastes. If there was a half-dozen cable stations, they would all be different. But no one can possibly meet all desires and tastes."

    Ed Gordon, BET's news anchor for eight years until his recent departure, says, "Bob has to be MTV and MSNBC all in one. He did it relatively well for most of my years there. In the latter years, I would have liked to see him do more, and I was disappointed. I think morale was very, very high and very, very low. For many, BET is a grand opportunity, and for some, the longer they stay, the more it's a disappointment."

    As for Bob Johnson, he says white programmers are never held to such standards, and he calls criticism about BET's content "censorship by the so-called black elite." For years he has stressed one basic point about his company: The "E" in BET doesn't stand for education. It stands for entertainment.

    Peter Perl is a staff writer for the Magazine.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar