Johnson Sells

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It's been more than a year since I received a phone call from a very irate BET Holdings Inc. chairman Robert Johnson.

Johnson-one of cable's most successful entrepreneurs since he launched Black Entertainment

Television some 20 years ago-was nearly foaming at the mouth over an article we ran in which syndicated cartoonist Aaron McGruder, creator of
The Boondocks
, took some shots at his channel.

At that time, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists was publicly criticizing BET's programming lineup, and the role of the network within the African American community, in ads placed in
Variety
, our sister publication.

What ensued was a lengthy question-and-answer session in
Multichannel News
, and one that probably few people will remember, because we turned it around on a dime for one of our huge show issues.

I bring that up now, because had our radar been more finely tuned, we might have noticed that Johnson seemed to be telegraphing that he was tiring of the battle. That's something I noticed when I reread that text.

And indeed last week, Viacom Inc. announced that it would acquire BET, a story that I'm proud to say
Multichannel News

reporter Tom Umstead first broke last Monday on our daily Web site. It was a

development that
The Wall Street Journal
,
The New York Times
, the
Washington Post

and other venerable media outlets scurried to keep up with.

In our interview, Johnson spoke about how difficult it is to program to a niche audience. The economics are a tough nut to crack. Although about 60 million cable households get BET, it only reaches 6 million African-American households. Those are his numbers, not ours.

He was also trying to launch BET II, but to this day still has not found an economic formula to make that dream a reality.

In answering why BET continued to lean toward music videos, rather than original programming, he said: "Music will continue to be the anchor of BET because music is the anchor of African-American culture. Now sure, we'll get criticism from Julian Bond. Julian Bond is a 60-year old civil-rights leader. I'm not programming BET for Julian Bond. I'm programming it for the people."

He also complained that BET receives the lowest advertising revenue of any 20-year-old cable network. He made that complaint just last summer, at the Television Critics Association tour.

Enter Viacom and its impressive history, grounded in music and its growing stable of niche networks. That's stable has grown even bigger since it acquired CBS Corp., with TNN: The National Network (the new moniker for The Nashville Network) and Country Music Television now integrated into Viacom's cable-network stronghold.

The Viacom-BET deal makes a lot of sense in this era of media giants, especially for BET. Fledgling rivals New Urban Entertainment and Major Broadcasting Corp. will soon begin to chip away at BET's near-monopoly as a network programmed for the African American audience.

And they are not BET's only competition. Digital music-video channels from MTV Networks now cater to the urban market. And Home Box Office, too, has cast its eye on that audience, with the debut of a multiplex called HBO Zone.

While some rap Johnson for selling out, I commend him for having the vision to make sure that his network-which was the first to even target the African-American audience-wound up in the hands of a company that will grow BET.

Who better than Viacom to assure the future growth of this channel and the needs of this underserved audience?

"Viacom will not starve BET, that's for sure," said one person familiar with the negotiations and Johnson's shoestring programming budget.

Indeed they won't. Witness what Viacom in just a short time has done with the old Nashville Network, bringing the World Wrestling Federation in to pack a little wallop while it continues to rebrand and rebuild the service as The National Network.

BET can only benefit from the resources, talent pool and the cross synergies that other Viacom cable networks will afford it. Johnson made a savvy bet by selling BET to a company that can take his network to the next step.

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