Black Entertainment Television founder and CEO Robert Johnson, who started the nation's first network for African Americans 25 years ago, announced yesterday he will retire at the end of the year.

Debra Lee, the network's president and chief operating officer for the past nine years, becomes the new CEO immediately. "I grew up with brands like Ebony and Motown, and BET has surpassed those companies and has really become the number one brand in African American households," Lee, 50, said in a conference call yesterday. "When I joined . . . almost 20 years ago, BET was known in certain areas but not as broadly as it is now."

Johnson, who will take on the title of chairman until the end of the year, will continue to oversee RLJ Companies, which has holdings in hotels, restaurants, gaming and a recording company. He also remains the owner of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats and WNBA's Charlotte Sting.

Johnson, 59, started the network in 1980 using a $15,000 bank loan; in 2001, he sold it to Viacom for $3 billion.

BET is the top-rated network among its target audience of African Americans ages 18 to 34; its overall audience remains relatively small, averaging about 543,000 viewers in prime time this year. But that's more than double the audience it had before Viacom bought it.

Viacom co-president Tom Freston told Newsweek in February that the company was assembling a programming team to "transform the channel," but Lee insists that the network will remain independent of its parent company. "[Freston] understood that it was important to the demographic that we reach -- the black community -- that BET remain autonomous."

-- John Maynard