Pasadena, Calif. -- Continuing his recent tirade over what
he considers unfair treatment of his networks, BET Holdings Inc. chairman Robert Johnson
last week blamed racial discrimination for keeping license fees and ad rates low for
20-year-old Black Entertainment Television.
Johnson also said broadcast networks should be held
accountable for the lack of blacks on their shows. "They are failing [their] public
mandate," he added. "I'm not going to let them off the hook."
"Advertisers, as they do, discount black
viewing," Johnson told writers at the Television Critics Association tour here.
"That's why The WB [Television Network] went out with black shows and came back with
Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Johnson was at the tour to introduce a session during which
BET described its previously announced plans to produce 10 African-American-themed
made-for-TV movies based on the Arabesque line of romance books.
A reporter quizzed Johnson and BET Holdings president Debra
Lee about why it's taken the network so long to invest in original fare to augment BET's
staples of music videos and infomercials.
Lee said the network was built on videos, which need to
remain a core part of the programming. And she added that BET has cut infomercials back to
late-night and early morning, but -- for now, at least -- it needs the cash they generate.
Johnson blamed many of the network's problems on racial
"We have the lowest sub fees of any network that's 20
years old, and we've got the lowest ad rates of any network that's 20 years old, and
that's simply because of the nature of the discrimination in this country against minority
business," Johnson said.
"There's no secret about it," he added. "If
we had this per-sub revenue of USA [Network] or the per-sub revenue of ESPN, certainly,
we'd spend more money to produce the product."
He continued, "There's simply a history of
discrimination against minority companies. Ebony still gets a lot lower page rate than
Life. And Essence magazine is not getting the same page rate as Vogue."
Johnson also said BET has the lowest penetration of any
network that age. BET has 58 million subscribers.
Asked about the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People's recent condemnation of the broadcast networks for the lack of blacks on
their new fall shows, Johnson said they should be held accountable.
Unlike cable networks, he added, the broadcast networks
have a federal mandate to serve the public interest -- the entire public.
Johnson said he understands what is happening at the
broadcast networks -- white executives are afraid to take risks, so they green-light safe
shows that don't have black characters or depict dicey topics like interracial romance.
He added that these network executives face the issues of
how they can serve the public interest, yet get the maximum play for their shows.
Ironically, one of the network shows Johnson criticized for
not having blacks in its cast was Seinfeld. That forced black actor Phil Morris -- who is
in one of BET's new movies, and who was on its panel -- to chime in. He played slick
lawyer Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld.
Morris pointed that there was a spinoff series based on the
Chiles character in the works. "But there's no Kramer show," he added.
At its session, BET also unwrapped its plans for a 10 p.m.
hour-long weeknight talk show called BET Live from LA, hosted by comedian Cedric and
former Planet Groove host Rachel.