"It's not ringing," Mayor Marion Barry said, and quickly redialed. A chuckle went through the crowd, with only 20 seconds until broadcast time. The mayor was at the dais in the Sheraton Washington last night to help inaugurate Black Entertainment Television's switchover to a new satellite.
Barry had been invited to make the telephone call to parent station WDCA (Channel 20), telling the station to make the switch to the WESTAR V satellite. With the seconds ticking away before the network was scheduled to begin its new programming, Barry had been handed a red "hotline" telephone to help BET phone home. But he couldn't connect with the station.
"We could have faked this, but we wanted to do it live," BET president Robert L. Johnson, also on the dais, announced nervously. As Barry stood with the red receiver still at his ear, the house lights dimmed, the BET logo loomed behind him on the 20-foot projection screen, and the crowd began to applaud loudly.
Barry finally reached the station, but too late. The network had linked up automatically without waiting for the signal.
"The telephone company never liked the cable industry anyway," Johnson joked to the crowd, which went back to sipping champagne and munching fried chicken and fresh fruit. Those gathered for the festivities watched the fledgling network's first program on WESTAR, "The Bobby Jones Gospel Show," with guests the Rev. Al Green and Billy Davis Jr.
"I just can't wait until we get cable in the District," Barry told the crowd. "The City Council and I have a little disagreement over who the contract should be awarded to." The audience laughed.
" BET is going to be terrific for the country," said Barry, leaving hurriedly after the ceremony. "It gives another perspective on black culture, broader information, broader tolerance." Asked about the irony of the Washington-based black network not being visible in its home city, Barry said, "It's interesting."
BET, as the name implies, is geared toward blacks. "What this means is that black Americans now have access to a network which will serve their particular cultural interests," said Johnson, the 36-year-old founder and president of the 3-year-old network. "And all Americans will benefit from broader exposure to black America's creativity. I don't think with mass television you can serve a specialized audience. We'll have programming that the networks, for financial reasons, couldn't provide," Johnson added, while shaking hands with friends and well-wishers.
Johnson said BET's expanded programming will "showcase the creative range of black entertainment." Programs new to the network include the "Carol Randolph Show" (a.k.a. WDVM's "Morning Break"); "Portraits in Black," Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam's cultural interview show; "Body and Soul," an aerobic exercise program, and black classic and feature films, music programs and college sports.
"This is really our second launching," said Johnson, adding that the network's goal is to become the major producer of programs used by the cable industry and the major medium used by advertisers to reach black consumers. "The first one was the birth -- this is the graduation. It's a little less exciting, but we have a lot more confidence."