Ten days ago, BET Holdings Inc. made public its plans to launch a new site on the World Wide Web aimed at black consumers.
Robert L. Johnson, founder, chairman and chief executive of BET Holdings, owner of cable TV's Black Entertainment Television network, said his new venture should be online by November.
The Web site, called BET.com, would offer users free access to news, entertainment, chat rooms and shopping. Johnson said four corporate partners put up $35 million--reportedly the largest investment ever for an online venture targeted to blacks.
BET Holdings officials predicted that this venture could help close the so-called "digital divide"--the fact that blacks are less likely than whites to own a computer or have Internet access.
"The failure of any community to avail itself of the resources of the Internet will limit its ability to succeed in the new millennium," Johnson said. "BET is bringing its media channels, content and brand resources together with those of our partners to create an online destination that will educate, enrich, empower and entertain African Americans."
If anyone is going to be enriched by this, I personally believe it will be BET alone.
I watch Black Entertainment Television at best once in a blue moon, and at one time I was a contributor on a business program that has since been canceled. Mostly, though, when I do tune in to BET I see music programs featuring videos with half-naked women gyrating to rap music. This doesn't exactly inspire confidence in BET as an educational tool.
"BET stands for entertainment, and that is their first priority," said B. Keith Fulton, director of technology programs and policy for the National Urban League. "To say that BET will become an alternative source for education for blacks is a bit of a stretch."
Johnson doesn't deny this at all. Rather than linking to outside retailers, BET.com will serve as the direct seller of Afrocentric products from travel to urban apparel. The Web site will be promoted by BET's media properties, as well as by the various sites owned by its media partners.
"We are in this to make money. There's no doubt about it, and I would be lying if I told you we weren't," Johnson told me in an interview. "But in the process I hope we have a positive impact on people's lives."
It's true that a Commerce Department report titled "Falling Through the Net," released last month, found that 37.7 percent of whites have access to the Internet either at home or at work, compared with 35.9 percent of Asian Americans, 19 percent of blacks and 16.6 percent of Hispanics.
There's no mystery why the gap exists: Computers cost too much. And if you are low-income, I can see why paying a monthly bill for Internet access might not be a priority.
Unfortunately, this digital gap puts black and Hispanic children at a competitive disadvantage in a workplace where computers and even the Internet are becoming increasingly important.
A Web site sporting BET's popular brand name may attract blacks who already have access to the Internet. But it probably will do very little to open opportunities for those who are shut out by poverty.
"If the people who need to cross the digital divide don't have a computer, I'm not sure what adding another Web site will do," said Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League.
Cooper brought it home for me. She said what we really need is a place for black folk to go to get computer training so they can get those good-paying technology jobs.
Happily, a number of organizations and corporations are trying not only to get people hooked up to the Internet but also to hook people up by bridging the digital gap. The Urban League plans to set up 114 computer training centers throughout the country that will prepare people for the growing number of computer-related jobs.
"The trick is how we use these devices to help folk help themselves," Fulton said. "Sitting down in front of a new entertainment portal doesn't do much for work-force development. What needs to happen is that these new resources lead to bona fide career training."
In fact, the Urban League will announce Tuesday plans to expand and upgrade equipment in its Northeast Washington computer center. The group also will announce plans to open a second computer center in Southeast. AT&T Corp. provided a $70,000 grant to help pay for the purchase, installation and servicing on the 25 to 35 computers planned for the new center, Cooper said.
NatioNet, a for-profit Internet company, has developed a pilot program to provide free computer training to blacks. The company, based in Atlanta, funds this project through corporate grants.
"We want to close the digital gap and get people connected to the Internet," said Dorothy Dixon, executive director of Countdown 2000, Get Connected Campaign. Dixon said 800 people registered for classes during a recent training session in Washington.
I certainly hope that Johnson, who has enjoyed an enormous amount of economic success because of black consumers, will share the wealth and take a good chunk of that $35 million and pass it on to community groups trying to provide free computer training to low-income families.
As Fulton of the National Urban League noted in a recent interview, what is really important is not just selling to blacks; it's "empowering black people not only to be consumers in this emerging market but to change their economic position."
Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. While she welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice or answer detailed questions about individual situations. Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.