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BET Founder Robert Johnson Says He Loves ‘Empire’ But It Fumbles the IPO Part of the Story

BET Founder Robert Johnson Says He Loves 'Empire' But It Fumbles the IPO Part of the Story

As I watched the below clip, I wondered whether Robert Johnson would’ve greenlit a series like “Empire” when he was still running BET (which he also founded in 1980, on a $15,000 loan, and a $500,000 outside investment), before selling the network to Viacom for a tidy sum that would make him one of the few black billionaires in the entire world at the time. The short and simplest answer is, likely not, if only because of what BET was during those years when he was CEO – heavy on the music videos, reruns of popular black sitcoms, a couple of news programs, and a youth-targeted talk-show in “Teen Summit.”

There were efforts to broaden the network’s content library and reach, like the creation of BET on Jazz (later known as BET Jazz and BET J), created originally to showcase jazz music-related programming, and the joint venture with Starz that would launch a premium cable TV channel featuring black movies, initially called BET Movies: Starz, and later renamed Black Starz after BET dropped out of the venture following its purchase by Viacom (it would eventually be known as Starz In Black).

But, despite those attempts, the original BET network was often on the receiving end of criticism from within the black community, and much of it publicly, challenging the network to, essentially, improve, and do away with the kind of programming that “justified” stereotypes held about African Americans, negatively influencing how young black Americans saw themselves.

The criticism continued even when then BET vice president Debra L. Lee took over as CEO in 2005, and launched a few new original series, although unscripted, in “Baldwin Hills” and “Hell Date.” 

In a 2010 interview, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson said that she herself was “ashamed” of what the network had become. “I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids that they don’t watch it […] When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television. We had public affairs programming. We had news… I had a show called Teen Summit, we had a large variety of programming, but the problem is that then the video revolution started up… And then something started happening, and I didn’t like it at all. And I remember during those days we would sit up and watch these videos and decide which ones were going on and which ones were not. We got a lot of backlash from recording artists… and we had to start showing them. I didn’t like the way women were being portrayed in these videos.”

And she wasn’t alone! By this time, however, Robert Johnson had long walked away with his billions, a very rich man! But, one could argue that he earned it. He launched the network in 1980, likely with visions of something far more reputable than what it eventually became under his tenure, and, after about 20 years, he sold it for $3 billion, and moved on to other ventures.

But whether “Empire” is a series he would’ve greenlit when he was boss at BET. we’ll never really know with certainty. So much else has to be considered, like the overall temperature for black content at the time, and, most importantly, money! Original scripted content doesn’t come cheap! It was far more lucrative to simply produce several music video shows. Profit margins were likely much higher. But imagine what BET just might be today, in 2015, if the network’s original scripted programming push that we’ve seen under Debra Lee in the last couple of years, as she continues to raise the bar, was the rule of the day back then, and remained so throughout the last 2 decades, with a serious commitment to topping themselves each successive year; BET would probably be contending for Emmy Awards annually today, and would be so far ahead of the competition, likely drawing much of the best black talent in the business (writers, directors, actors, etc) – many who are currently enjoying success at other non-black TV networks. 

Alas, things didn’t quite happen that way, as the network rebrands itself today, seemingly still searching for an identity; although, in considering recent moves in terms of programming (what’s been added and subtracted), one could argue that the network wants to draw a more adult, discerning audience. I’m looking forward to seeing what BET looks like in another 5 to 10 years. 

In the meantime… founder of the network, Robert Johnson, appeared on CNBC today, the financial news cable TV network, to talk about, among other things, “Empire,” which was a surprise to me. During the conversation, the host, Kelly Evans, asked him what he thought of the series, and also how true to life it is – apparently, since Johnson once ran a media company that he took public, via an IPO – a black-owned media company – CNBC must have thought that the IPO story in “Empire” (also a black-owned media company) somehow spoke to Johnson’s own experiences when he went through the same process with his? The message being that all black company IPOs are alike and must speak to each others’ experiences somehow, if only because they are all black.

Johnson replied, saying that, while he does love the show, it gets the IPO process wrong, essentially that it’s unrealistic, and he explains why. I’m sure most fans of the series won’t care whether it’s unrealistic; the entire show is like a series of exclamation marks, one after the other! And, after all, Johnson did say he loves the show, so it’s not necessarily a criticism of it. But consider this simply an FYI… 

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