Bob's Back: Johnson's Media Return Is Digital

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Robert Johnson, who made his fortune as founder of Black Entertainment Television, is back in the media business, this time with a focus on developing and distributing content “to all media platforms, including broadcast and cable, DVD and Blu-Ray, digital downloads, and digital streaming,” as he puts it.

A great emphasis will be on the latter two platforms, if you interpret Johnson’s focus in announcing two acquisitions and the creation of RLJ Entertainment Inc. this week. He made it clear that the new venture is intended “to reach a broader audience across the expanding number of media outlets.”

The newly created RLJ Entertainment, which intends to go public later this year, on Monday revealed that it has acquired Image Entertainment a southern California movie and TV distributor, and Acorn Media Group, a suburban Washington, DC, distributor known for its library of British TV programming. The new public company will be based in Los Angeles.

Image controls a library of more than 3,700 comedy, horror and urban genre titles, many of which are available via Netflix, Hulu and iTunes. Acorn, which last month bought a controlling stake in the Agatha Christie literary estate, has been active in developing original content for adult mystery/dramas and for its Acacia lifestyle brand, which offers yoga, fitness and other video programs - many of which are available digitally. Acorn also has a thriving catalog and ecommerce business. (Disclosure: I served on Acorn’s advisory board for several years during the last decade.)

Johnson’s RLJ Acquisition, Inc. is rolling up the two media companies; it paid $22.5 million in cash and promissory notes for Image and $105 million in cash, plus 1 million in common shares for Acorn. RLJA is a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC), also known as a “blank check company” that seeks to acquire privately-held operating companies.

In recent years, Johnson has parlayed his BET prominence and fortune into a variety of ventures in banking, lodging/hospitality and sports. The creation of RLJ Entertainment is a reminder that his media roots run strong - and he continues to see it in terms of specialty content delivered through the best new platforms. That’s how Johnson leveraged his role as an NCTA lobbyist (where he developed great industry contacts) and his vision for an African-American channel into the breakthrough BET.

Johnson sees the merger of Acorn and Image into RLJ Entertainment, expected to finalize by June, as “a unique way to transform the way minority content can come to the marketplace,” as he told The Washington Post. “We’ll be in a position to say to minority producers and content creators that we can help you value what you produce by getting it distributed across all distribution platforms.”

There’s that competitive, cross-platform agenda again.

Johnson will serve as executive chairman of the combined companies and will, according to the RLJ Entertainment announcement “leverage his substantial expertise in media, consumer branding, and strategic relationships to accelerate growth and drive value creation.”

It starts with diverse, urban, mass market content - with a British accent - and a whole new way of bringing it to living rooms and hand-held devices.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, Md., and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at