Pretty soon Bob Johnson may have to rename BET, the cable empire he launched 20 years ago. Black Entertainment Television? Try "Black Every Thing."
Johnson announced last week the creation of BET.com, an Internet site he envisions as the portal to black-oriented news, chat rooms, music, books, movies, manufactured products, collectibles, travel and financial services, with links to just about everything else African Americans might find of special interest.
The $35 million venture -- backed by a consortium comprising BET Holdings, USA Networks, Liberty Media Group, News America Digital Publishing and Microsoft -- could be a bigger economic breakthrough than either BET itself or the Ebony and Jet magazine empire launched by the other Johnson -- Chicago publisher John H. Johnson.
"It's certainly more exciting than what happened in 1979, when I just happened to be at the right place at the right time," BET's Johnson said in an interview last week. He had an idea, he said, but no name recognition and not much to offer. In the early days, BET aired two hours of programming a week. Now its 24-hour-a-day channel reaches nearly 60 million cable households -- and more than 90 percent of black households with cable access.
That sort of penetration built a name brand that has facilitated a whole range of BET Holding enterprises -- the BET SoundStage theme restaurant, magazines, movie studios -- and enough cash to afford an array of additional opportunities. Not long ago, Johnson made a serious bid for the then-Washington Bullets professional basketball team.
And he finds BET.com, scheduled for a November launch, more exciting than that?
Suppose he'd already been a major media player, with instant name recognition and instant credit, back in 1979. BET might have been a much bigger enterprise by now, certainly with a steeper trajectory. Well, he is a major player now, in a rapidly growing (and changing) medium, and the opportunity to become a truly huge player looms large.
"What we'll have is both an information engine and an economic engine," he said. "We'll offer content, information and economic opportunity. Black people have a lot of ideas and products that never take off because they don't have the marketing apparatus. Say someone is creating black-oriented collectibles or recordings or any number of things that they can't get the big distributors interested in. We can give them a targeted audience for their wares."
And the combination of e-commerce and advertising should produce huge profits for BET.com, he said.
But will it? Analysts have questioned whether Johnson, for all his success with Black Entertainment Television, can reach the critical mass of audience he needs on the Internet. It is, in another form, the question raised by civil rights advocates who have complained of the "digital divide" between whites and blacks (and Hispanics).
According to a recent Commerce Department report, "Falling Through the Net," about 47 percent of whites own computers, more than twice the rate for blacks. (Asian American computer ownership is 55 percent, with Hispanics at just over 25 percent.)
The point: BET has done well in part because black households are overwhelmingly TV-owning households. But black computer ownership -- and therefore Internet access -- continues to lag. Indeed, according to the Commerce study, low-income white families are three times as likely to have Internet access as low-income black families -- and the falling price of computers may be widening the gap.
Isn't this bad news -- not just for Bob Johnson's new venture but, more important, for black academic and economic success? Suburban schools tend to be wired, while inner-city schools may, at best, have a few free-standing computers and not much instruction in their use. That exacerbates the education gap that already has a lot of us worried. But even beyond school, the Internet is becoming the method of choice for finding out about job opportunities and submitting resumes.
Johnson knows all this, but he also knows of two recent programs to combat the "digital divide" -- one initiated by the NAACP and AT&T, the other by the Urban League and Ameritech.
These efforts will help bring the computer revolution to a black population that has been left out, he says. His own venture could bring blacks to the revolution -- and, not coincidentally, make a great deal of money.