Five years ago, as Black Entertainment Television debuted, everyone called its founder, Robert Johnson, a pioneer. Even Johnson himself did -- at his kick-off party on Capitol Hill he quoted from CBS chairman (and pioneer) William Paley's memoirs.
Today, the pioneer says with a smile, "I'm about ready to settle the territory."
He says this from his office in BET's headquarters: a sleek, Scandinavian-tech Georgetown building that rises three stories around an atrium.
When Johnson, with a few hundred thousand dollars, started his cable network of news, sports and entertainment oriented toward black viewers, he was offering a modest three hours a week on Friday nights. Last October, BET began offering 24 hours a day, seven days a week of programming. Today it reaches 8.5 million subscribing households and has an average 80,000 viewers per quarter hour.
Tonight, BET celebrates its fifth anniversary with a black-tie dinner at the Four Seasons hotel for 350 people.
Johnson still has a penchant for thinking big: "I think BET will be one of the largest black companies in the country," he says.
He also happens to be the president of District Cablevision Inc., which last month was awarded the District's cable TV franchise. Johnson carefully makes a distinction between his two business interests, saying, "I'm just a small investor in DCI. I don't have control over DCI. I do have it over BET . . . They're really two separate businesses."
District Cablevision is also controversial right now; it is having trouble lining up necessary financing pending the outcome of an antitrust lawsuit filed against DCI by an unsuccessful bidder for the District's franchise.
"We don't make any comments on that," Johnson says.
What he will talk about is his growing cable network. Has Robert Johnson revolutionized television? Hardly. Black college sports programs dominate the Saturday schedule, and the weekly schedule offers long, nearly daily doses of shows called "Video Soul" (music videos and interviews) and "Video Vibrations" ("Four solid hours a day"). There are also news shows, a black entertainment interview show, a black classic film series, a cooking show, a gospel show and "I Spy" reruns.
But changing the format of television was not his goal, says Johnson.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," Johnson says, "but we do want to paint it black. We're not trying to revolutionize television. We want to give viewers the diversity of choice."
He adds: "Looking back from where we started, we're very pleased. We'd like to improve the technical quality . . . In terms of programming, we think we're doing very well." BET recently ran a contest on "Video Soul" in which viewers chose the most popular female music video star. Johnson says they got 70,000 postcards.
"The winner was Vanity," says Johnson. "We're going to try and have her on the show."
Johnson sees himself mainly as a businessman, not as a creator or programmer. He has a staff to do that.
"I have no burning desire to create the definitive black program," Johnson says. "What I don't like is what I call censorship by the so-called black elite . . . Black people range from the truck driver in Shreveport to the PhD at Harvard and a lot of people in between. I want to reach all those people."
And what black people want to see is basically what everyone wants to see: "movies, entertainment series, sports and news," Johnson says. "What we really want to say to black viewers is, 'We want to give you shows that reflect your cultural views. Why should you watch white doctors? Why not watch black doctors?' We want to create some of that fantasy about black lives."
Such programming is one of his goals, but it may come in slow increments. "The next five years will be the years of originally produced BET programs," Johnson says, "with emphasis on soap operas or variety shows. To go to made-for-BET productions is too expensive right now. The revenues aren't there." (He won't reveal advertising revenues.)
After soap operas and variety shows, says Johnson, BET will "slowly involve the writers and directors and performers. As far as black artists are concerned, one of our problems is what to do with them." Right now, about all BET can do is interview them. Maybe, eventually, there will be "one-act" shows, but BET just doesn't have the money now. "We charge $800 for a 30-second spot," he says. "You can get maybe six commercials in 30 minutes. The economics just aren't there yet . . . In order to produce really good, original dramatic productions we need to get the subscriber base up to 20 million. I think we will be there in 1988." (According to James Boyle of the Cable Advertising Bureau, the cost of 30-second commercial spots on other cable networks ranges from $500 to $5,000.)
He also sees room to improve news coverage. "When there's an important political issue that affects all Americans, why shouldn't black Americans have a chance to hear what black congressmen think of it instead of constantly hearing what white Congress members think of how it affects their constituents? . . . There's so much news about blacks that doesn't get out to the rest of the country . . . BET is in a position to be a pioneer in black-oriented news."
To a certain degree, Johnson is revolutionizing television.
"Nobody," he says, "offers a steady diet of programming, an entire 24-hour network dedicated to serving the viewing interests of the 27 million blacks in America."
However, many advertisers don't yet think that's unique. After all, blacks are already watching the same television shows whites are watching -- and watching longer. (Blacks watch an average of 70 hours of television per week versus 48 hours per week by whites, according to A.C. Nielsen reports.)
"I hear it all the time from advertisers," Johnson says: " 'We've already got black viewers.' I concede today to them, but that may not be the case tomorrow. I'm offering an opportunity to be part of tomorrow."
Johnson, who is 38, was vice president of government relations for the National Cable Television Association when he floated his idea about a programming network in 1979. He holds a masters from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and had already worked for the Washington Urban League, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and as press secretary to D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy.
"I came home and said to my wife, Sheila, 'I'm going to quit my job and I need you to sign on a $15,000 loan.' She said, 'Okay.' We borrowed the money and did a proposal and took it to John Malone, president of TCI the Denver-headquartered Telecommunications Inc. and said, 'Here's the idea.' He said, 'I'll commit a half-million dollars but you have to give me 20 percent.' I said, 'Great.' I was prepared at that time to give them 50 percent."
Now, Home Box Office and the Cincinnati-based Taft Broadcasting Co. have equity interests in BET. "They have all signed agreements saying they will never try to get majority ownership," says Johnson. "It's in their interests to keep it in black ownership."
Johnson says that because BET is minority-owned, it can attract certain help it might not get otherwise. "We're able to attract black entertainers," he says. "Many will help out for a black-owned company." For instance, Nipsey Russell hosts a humorous panel show of youngsters called "Nipsey Russell's Juvenile Jury." Says Johnson, "We don't pay Nipsey what he could charge. Or black college games. They know we can't pay them what NBC could, but they know we will give them constant national coverage."
Johnson predicts the company will break even or make a slight profit this year or next. Since its inception, the company has lost about $4 million, he estimates.
"Two things that have gotten us through is good cash management and sufficient capitalization . . . We did this thing with private capital, no federal dollars."
Johnson doesn't worry about the home video boom, saying that the people who buy video recorders are the "select viewers" of television. "Heavy television viewers are going to gravitate to television." To be sure, Johnson and his wife Sheila, a lecturer on violin instruction, have a VCR, six televisions and a satellite dish in the back yard of their upper Northwest home.
He has two ambitions, he says: "One is to get enough money to buy a boat and anchor it off an island in the Caribbean. And, I still would like to be an ambassador. That's going to have to be down the road after I make some money."
Right now, he seems content to pilot BET.
"I'll be happy when BET has turned a profit and is beginning to pay back its investors. That's success."