Robert L. Johnson
Johnson, Robert L. 1946(?)–
Robert L. Johnson 1946(?)–
Cable television executive
“We want a broad audience, but we never want to forget our mandate: to give black audiences a full range of black entertainment and information,” Robert L. Johnson, the founder and president of Black Entertainment Television (BET), told Christopher C. Williams in the New York Times. Creator of the first and only cable network television to provide solely black programming, Johnson built his nearly $500 million company on a format that featured black music videos as its highlight. He is also seeking to gain a larger share of the market allotted to the major networks.
In addition to videos, black collegiate sports, news, and reruns of the Cosby Show, which comprise most of BET’s format, Johnson is developing more original programming, including late night talk shows, public affairs series, one-act plays, a sports phone-in show, and teen magazine shows as well as live in-studio concerts and soap opera updates. Johnson disclosed to Karen Osborne in Black Enterprise,“TV in the ’90’s is going to involve the viewer. Our goal is to give America’s 21 million blacks the power to make a difference, to be heard and to make things happen by actively participating.”
A Mississippi native, Johnson was educated at the University of Illinois and Princeton University. He was working as an executive for a cable TV trade association and as a cable lobbyist in Washington, D.C., when he borrowed $15,000 to begin BET in 1979. Johnson convinced John Malone, the president of Tele-Communications, Inc., to invest $500,000 in the project. By 1982, Great American Broadcasting had joined the list of investors in BET. Home Box Office (HBO) followed two years later, but Johnson maintained a 52 percent controlling interest in the company. Although he won the bidding rights to wire cable in the Washington, D.C., area in 1984, Johnson became enmeshed in a series of lawsuits filed by competitors. His District Cablevision Inc. was unable to provide the 125,000 homes in the neighborhood access to BET until 1988.
BET’s initial financial struggles came to an end in 1986 when the company broke even. Although he declined to publish financial figures, Johnson noted that BET became profitable in 1987. Rated highly among industry analysts for his executive prowess, Johnson envisioned BET’s media impact approaching that of such companies as Motown and Disney. “[Johnson’s] a very, very gifted
Born c. 1946, in Hickory, MS; married; wife’s name, Sheila; children: Paige. Education: Attended University of Illinois; received M.A. from Princeton University.
Cable television executive. Worked for Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Washington Urban League, and as a press secretary; National Cable TV Association, vice-president of government relations, 1976-79; Black Entertainment Television (BET), founder, chairman, chief executive, and principal shareholder, 1980—. Board member of Cable TV Advertising Bureau and Black College Educational Network. National Cable Television Association (NCTA), vice-president of government affairs, 1978-79, member of board of directors, 1982-84.
Awards; Presidential Award, NCTA, 1982; Image Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1982; Pioneer Award, Capitol Press Club, 1984; Business of the Year Award, Washington, DC, Chamber of Commerce, 1985.
Addresses: Office— Black Entertainment Television, 1232 31st St., NW, Washington, DC 20007.
entrepreneur,” Don Anderson, an HBO executive and former head of affiliate marketing for BET, commented in the New York Times. “He’s managing BET more efficiently than networks twice his size.”
In his quest to expand BET in the marketplace, Johnson combatted the problem of racial discrimination in media and advertising. He told Williams that industries “absolutely undervalued the black consumer market.” Another factor that hindered BET’s progress was lack of financial muscle to market the network. A spokesperson for Kagan Associates pointed out in the New York Times in 1989, “There is a poor understanding of exactly what BET is and what it wants to become.” Taking steps to remedy the situation, Johnson signed a million dollar joint advertising pact to begin his marketing campaign with a major network that same year. He explained to Osborne, “ABC [American Broadcasting Company] has an interest in reaching a black audience, and we’re interested in expanding.”
After a decade of growth in 1990, BET programming had increased from two to twenty-four hours each day. Advertising revenues multiplied four times to $29.9 million. Such figures reflected the growth of buying power among blacks whose income rose 40 percent from 1980 to 1990. Discovering that blacks viewed television 50 percent more than the rest of the American public, investors pumped a record-breaking $743 million into creating ads aimed at black buyers. Johnson, who seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the impact of black culture on the public imagination, embodied the black media boom of the 1990s. He scrutinized investors’ frenzied purchase of BET stock, telling a Newsweek correspondent, “It’s incredible how a company with $9 million in earnings in 1991 could leave Wall Street with a market value of $475 million.”
Johnson’s career plans include using the $10 million studio he completed in Washington to film original programs. He has launched African-American interest magazines, including Emerge for young adults and YSB (Young Sisters and Brothers) for adolescents, as well as a radio network. In addition to a collaboration with television pay-per-view promoter Butch Lewis, Johnson was considering a possible partnership with filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, creator of New Jack City. A Newsweek reporter predicted, “As long as black creative energy remains a powerful force in American pop culture, more advertisers will jump on board. And entrepreneurs like Robert Johnson will be driving the train.”
Atlanta Journal, April 7, 1991.
Black Enterprise, November 1985; April 1989.
Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1989; November 21, 1990.
Fortune, September 3, 1984.
Jet, May 20, 1991.
Newsweek, December 2, 1991.
New York Times, September 17, 1989; September 16, 1991.
Wall Street Journal, September 19, 1991.
Washington Post, June 5, 1990; September 21, 1991.
Johnson, Robert L. 1946–
Robert L. Johnson 1946–
“We want a broad audience, but we never want to forget our mandate: to give black audiences a full range of black entertainment and information,” Robert L. Johnson, the founder and president of Black Entertainment Television (BET), told Christopher C. Williams in the New York Times. Creator of the first cable network to provide solely black programming, Johnson built his nearly $3 billion company on a format that featured black music videos and comedy as its highlight. After selling the company to Viacom in 2000, Johnson became the first African-American billionaire and set his sights on other ventures such as becoming an owner in the airline industry, authoring books, and owning professional sports teams.
Born on April 8, 1946, in Hickory, Mississippi, Robert Louis Johnson was the ninth of ten children born to the relatively poor Johnson family. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Freeport, Illinois, where Johnson grew up and went to school, supported by his father’s job at the battery factory and his mother’s part time occupation of switch assembly. Johnson learned early on that education was the only way to succeed, telling the Black Collegian, “Going to college is a statement of your determination to get engaged in being exposed to information and how important knowledge is.” Since his family would not have the money to support further education after high school, Johnson worked hard on his studies and earned an academic scholarship to Illinois University where he graduated in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree. Not wanting to stop there, Johnson applied to Princeton University’s Wood-row Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and after a long drawn out process was finally admitted to the school for graduate work in 1969. Three years later, he earned a master’s degree in public administration, graduating sixth in his class.
Johnson’s first employment came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which took him on as a press secretary. He would later rise to the position of public affairs officer in the corporation before moving on to various other jobs relating to politics, including press aide for Washington, D.C., councilman Sterling Tucker and director of communications for the Washington
At a Glance…
Born on April 8, 1946, in Hickory, MS; married Sheila (divorced); married Maxine; children: (first wife) Paige, Brett Education: University of Illinois, BA, 1968; Princeton University, MA, 1972.
Career: Cable television executive. Worked for Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Washington Urban League, and as a press secretary; National Cable TV Association, vice president of government relations, 1976-79; Black Entertainment Television (BET), principal shareholder, 1980-98, founder, chairman, chief executive, 1980-; NBA Charlotte Franchise, owner, 2003-.
Memberships: Board member of Cable TV Advertising Bureau and Black College Educational Network; National Cable Television Association (NCTA), board of directors, 1982-84.
Awards: Presidential Award, NCTA, 1982; Image Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1982; Pioneer Award, Capitol Press Club, 1984; Business of the Year Award, Washington, DC, Chamber of Commerce, 1985; Humanitarian of the Year, T.J. Martel I Foundation, 2002.
Addresses: Office —Black Entertainment Television, 1900 W Place NE, Washington, DC 20018. Phone: (202) 608-2000.
Urban League. Then in 1976 Johnson secured a job that would launch him in the direction of his future, as he became the vice-president of government relations for the National Cable and Television Association.
In 1979 Johnson began to examine the new cable network programming that was available to the public and realized that there were few offerings for African-American viewers. Johnson saw this void in the cable marketplace as a large untapped market, and his solution was to create a new cable network: Black Entertainment Television (BET). Johnson soon found that it was very expensive to start a cable company, and he began securing loans from banks and investors. Finally, after a great deal of work and the securing of many resources, BET went on the air on January 25, 1980, with a two-hour movie called A Visit to the Chief’s Son. The initial ratings for the station were low, but Johnson continued to improve the lineup, adding talk shows, sports from traditionally black colleges, and most importantly, music videos in 1982, which he received for free from record companies.
By 1982, after two consecutive years of profit loss, BET could no longer survive without additional support, which it found in a new partner, Taft Broadcasting Company. Then, in 1984, Home Box Office (HBO) added its investment to the slowly growing cable station. The viewership began to grow, more cable companies began to broadcast the station, and by 1989 BET was able to pay back all of its investors and start on the road to profit, even though it was still the smallest network on cable. 1989 was also the first year that the network invested heavily in giving broadcast time to music videos as well, raising the ratings for the network dramatically. Then, in 1991, BET made history as it became the first African-American owned corporation to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The company’s stock quickly rose and Johnson found himself a millionaire media executive by 1992.
Johnson knew that he had to continue to expand his media ownership if he expected the BET company to grow. So he ventured into the print publishing world in 1991 by becoming a major investor in Emerge: Black America’s News Magazine, and also began to publish his own magazine, Young Sisters and Brothers (YSB). By 1994 he had also expanded to a different medium by developing a BET radio network that was broadcast on nationwide stations that focused on urban music. While some of these investments would fall by the wayside by the end of the decade, they helped the BET company gain a firmer hold as the premier media provider of entertainment for African Americans.
In 1995 BET had expanded not only its holdings in other media, but the BET television network was also expanding. Added to the music videos, comedy shows, and movies, it started airing public affairs shows, town hall meetings, and a children’s literature program. In 1996 BET broke into the premium movie industry by partnering with STARZ to create BET Movies, showing mainly African-American focused movies, both contemporary and classics. Johnson continued to grow his empire in 1998 with BET on Jazz, BET Pictures II and BET Arabesque Films, which produced all original programming and films for the African-American community. Johnson continued to work in the world of print as well with BET Weekend magazine, Heart & Soul magazine, and BET Arabesque Books, the only publisher of African-American romance novels. All of this growth was an effort, Johnson told the Black Collegian, to create, “an environment where young African Americans can become executives with tremendous responsibility and who’ve been able to generate for themselves significant wealth. The real question is have you created a sense of empowerment and I think that’s what we’ve done at BET.”
Near the middle of 1998, Johnson took the BET company and made it private once again and by January of 1999, a deal was made to sell BET to Viacom for $3 billion. Johnson signed a contract with Viacom to remain the CEO and chairman of BET until 2005. The reason behind the merger, according to Johnson in Black Enterprise was that BET needed to “address ways to compete aggressively against large conglomerates—leveraging all of their assets. And we concluded that this was an opportunity for us to align our brand with their brand and have access to the resources they would bring to bear.” Many people felt that by allowing BET to be bought by a large corporation, a mainly “white” run operation, that Johnson was giving up on his efforts to produce quality African-American programming in lieu of financial gain. Yet Johnson proved many critics wrong by not only staying on as CEO of the company, but also using Viacom’s resources to boost viewership nearly 23 percent the year after BET had been sold. A year later, he came under fire again for being under the Viacom thumb when Tavis Smiley, a popular talk show host on BET, was fired after giving an interview to the American Broadcast Company (ABC) before offering it to BET or to CBS, which is owned by Viacom.
Since selling BET Johnson has headed in numerous directions, accomplishing some personal goals while still promoting the African-American community. In 2000 he started a plan to create an airline company called DC Airlines, which would service a regional area around the District of Columbia, and more importantly, be the first airlines to be owned by an African American. The airline itself never got off the ground, being tied up in court proceedings and congressional hearings on the nature of the airline business, but Johnson has hope that in the future he will still be able to get himself into this market.
Even though the airline business seemed to be a dead end for Johnson, he did not let it interfere with the numerous other ventures he had on his plate. In 2001 he separated out restaurants owned by the BET company into a new company in an attempt to revamp and remodel the style, theme, and menu of these restaurants. Johnson hoped to have more hands-on experience with these restaurants as they took on a new direction. Perhaps the most notable of Johnson’s achievements, however, was his purchase of the National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise in Charlotte, North Carolina, making Johnson, the first African American to own a major league sports team. This came as a shock to many, for most analysts thought the franchise would be given to long time NBA star Larry Bird, but as Johnson told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, “It’s no surprise to me when African-Americans ascend to top positions in corporations or in sports because it’s long overdue. It’s not only good business, it’s morally right.” In 2003 he expressed interest in purchasing the Montreal Expos, a baseball team.
While Johnson does believe in hard work and earning what is given, he is also not averse to giving back to the community and programs that helped him to succeed in life. In 2003 he donated $3 million to support the National Underground Railroad Museum, $1 million to support the Jazz Project through the Lincoln Center, and $3.5 million to Denver’s National Cable Television Center and Museum. Yet Johnson does not always seek publicity for his donations for as he told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t want to be seen as a hero to younger people. I want to be seen as a good, solid business guy who goes out and does a job, and the job is to build a business.”
Business Leader Profiles for Students. Vol. 2., Gale Group, 2002.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, 15th Edition, Gale, 2002.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 28, 2001, p. C1.
Billboard, June 29, 2002, p. 80.
Black Collegian, October 2000, pp. 141-142.
Black Enterprise, January 2001, p. 58; August 2002, p. 24; February 2003, p. 19.
Forbes, October 8, 2001, pp. 42-44.
Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2003, p. E-l.
New York Times, September 17, 1989; September 16, 1991.
PR Newswire, April 13, 2001; January 14, 2003.
—Marjorie Burgess and Ralph G. Zerbonia
Johnson, Robert L. 1946–
Robert L. Johnson
Chief executive officer, Black Entertainment Television
Born: April 8, 1946, in Hickory, Mississippi.
Family: Son of Archie (timber seller) and Edna (teacher) Johnson; married Sheila Crump; children: two.
Career: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, public affairs officer; National Urban League, Washington office, director of communication; Sterling Tucker, press aide; Walter E. Fauntroy, 1973, press secretary; National Cable Television Association, 1976, vice president for governmental relations; Black Entertainment Television, 1980–, chief executive officer; Charlotte Bobcats, 2002–, owner.
Awards: Image Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1982; Trumpet Award, Turner Broadcasting, 1993; President's Award, National Cable Television Association, 1982; Pioneering Award, Capital Press Club, 1984; Business of the Year Award, Washington, D.C., Chamber of Commerce, 1985; Executive Leadership Council Award, 1992; Broadcasting & Cable, Hall of Fame Award, 1997; 20/20 Vision Award, Cablevision magazine.
Address: BET Holdings, 1232 31st Street NW, Washington, DC 20007; http://www.bet.com.
■ Robert L. Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), the first U.S. television network aimed at African American audiences. Starting in 1979 with a $15,000 loan, Johnson turned BET into one of the richest franchises in the cable industry. BET was the first company controlled by African Americans to sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange, and Johnson was the first African American majority owner of a sports franchise.
BEGINNING OF A MEDIA ENTREPRENEUR
Johnson grew up in Freeport, Illinois, the ninth of 10 chil dren. His entrepreneurial spirit was honed when he was a child. At the age of 12, Johnson began a job delivering the Rockford Morning Star. He did not like getting up early. In aninterview with Erik Spanberg that appeared in The Business Journal Johnson said, "I realized if I want to make some money, I'd better work for myself" (March 28, 2003). Graduating from high school with honors in history, Johnson attended the University of Illinois on an academic scholarship. After earning his bachelor's degree Johnson enrolled at Princeton University to study toward his goal of becoming a U.S. ambassador. In response to an effort to attract minority students to careers in international relations, Johnson attended the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs with financial support from the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Foreign Service. He was graduated sixth in his class.
After completing his studies at Princeton, Johnson worked primarily in the field of communication media. He had jobs as a public affairs officer for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, director of communications for the Washington, D.C., office of the National Urban League, press aide to Sterling Tucker, the Washington, D.C., councilman, and press secretary to Walter E. Fauntroy, the congressional delegate from the District of Columbia.
In 1976 Johnson was named vice president of governmental relations for the National Cable Television Association, a trade organization that represents cable television companies. As a lobbyist Johnson escorted an aspiring cable entrepreneur, Ken Silverman, to the office of Claude Pepper, the congressman from Florida, who was an advocate for senior citizens. Silverman wanted Pepper's support for his idea of starting a cable channel for older Americans. Johnson realized this concept would work well for African Americans, an underserved market in communication and entertainment media. The programming would focus on African American entertainment, cultural themes, and lifestyles. Johnson approached John Malone, a board member of NCTA and the head of TCI, a cable operator, to invest in his idea. Malone agreed, and on January 25, 1980, BET made its debut on cable television.
THE RISE OF BET
BET began operating a few hours a day. The content was primarily films from the 1940s and 1950s and blaxploitation films. With the advent of MTV, a cable television channel devoted to popular music, music videos had become ingrained into popular culture. In an effort to keep costs low Johnson took advantage of another void, the lack of African American artists appearing on MTV. Johnson formed relationships with record labels to promote on BET videos by rhythm and blues and hip-hop artists. The network also added infomercials, reruns of a gospel show, and African American college football and basketball games. For the first six years BET lost money, and Johnson sought new investors. He recruited Taft Broadcasting Company and Home Box Office. This move provided more money for the channel and increased BET air time to 24 hours a day. In the early 1990s BET turned its first profit.
Johnson established BET Holdings to serve as parent company and decided to offer public stock in BET. On October 30, 1991, BET Holdings became the first African American firm to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1999, believing the stock to be undervalued, Johnson reversed the decision, making his company private again. BET continued its growth by expanding programming to include BET on Jazz, BET on Jazz International, BET movies, and BET Action pay-per-view. Building on brand identity outside of the cable industry, Johnson capitalized by launching African American publications such as YSB, Emerge, Heart & Soul, and Arabesque Books, a line of African American romance novels written by African American authors. Johnson also made a foray into the restaurant business by opening BET Soundstage and BET on Jazz, which were theme restaurants. In 2001 Johnson made an effort to become the only African American to own a major airline by becoming the owner of D.C. Air. His plans were halted when the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to sue to stop the deal over antitrust concerns.
In 2001 Johnson sold BET to Viacom. The deal was worth $3 billion and required that Johnson remain CEO for five more years. This move made Johnson the first African American billionaire in the United States. After selling BET, Johnson formed the RLJ Companies, where he began new ventures. Johnson purchased the National Basketball Association expansion franchise in North Carolina, the Charlotte Bobcats. He also developed hotels under L.J. Development; Leeward Islands Lottery Holdings Company, an online lottery company; Ortanique Restaurants; Wolverine Pizza; and Three Key Music, a jazz recording company.
The success of BET stemmed from Johnson's vision to capitalize on cable programming to an underserved African American market. He also used African American talent by hiring executives, producers, and on-air performers. In an interview with Robert G. Miller in the Black Collegian, Johnson commented, "As an entrepreneur, sometimes you make it up as you go along. You have to have an unshaken belief in yourself, work harder than the next guy, and do whatever it takes with determination. You have to have an ability to engage people to believe in you, while being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. You must be able to marshal the resources to achieve that vision. That means you have to find good people, support them, and have the steadfastness to stay in there" (October 8, 2001).
See also entry on BET Holdings, Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
Hughes, Alan, "Slam Dunk!," Black Enterprise, March 2003, pp. 94–99.
Jones, Joyce, "Betting on Black," Black Enterprise, January 2001, pp. 58–61.
Miller, Robert G., "A Business Titan: Redefining Black Entrepreneurial Success," Black Collegian, October 2000, pp. 140–143.
——, "The Cable Capitalist," Forbes, October 8, 2001, pp. 42–54.
Spanberg, Erik, "Taking Care of Business: Robert Johnson has a Long History of Seizing Every Opportunity to Build a Business Empire," The Business Journal, March 28, 2003, p. A4.
—Tiffeni J. Fontno