BET’s Johnson to Step Down at Year-End


Black Entertainment Television CEO Robert Johnson is expected to step down at the end of the year, according to sources close to the situation.

Neither representatives from BET nor Viacom Inc., which owns the network, would comment on a report in Monday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal that Johnson -- who founded the African-American-targeted network in 1980 -- would step down at the end of the year when his contract with Viacom expires. Viacom gave Johnson a five-year deal when it bought BET in 2000 for $3 billion.

But sources close to Viacom and BET said Johnson has decided to leave BET to concentrate on other business ventures, including his purchase of the Charlotte Bobcats National Basketball Association team.

Johnson told Multichannel News only four months ago that he intended to honor his contract with Viacom and then “sit down with [Viacom chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone] and tell him what I want to do” at the end of the year.

BET chief operating officer Debra Lee, who currently runs the day-to-day operations for the network, also has a five-year deal with Viacom that expires at the end of 2005, although sources close to both companies said she will remain with the network.

During his 25-year tenure at BET, Johnson created the most successful African-American-targeted network in television history. But the network, which currently reaches 84 million subscribers, has been criticized in the past by some within the African-American community for its heavy reliance on music-video programming.

Also, BET for the first time is facing a serious challenge from Comcast Corp. and Radio One Inc.-owned TV One, which is targeting 25- to 54-year-old African-American viewers that it says BET isn’t serving. The one-year-old service is in nearly 20 million households.

It’s unclear whether BET will remain autonomous after Johnson’s departure or whether it will be folded into the MTV Networks group headed by Tom Freston.