In Black America; Black Entertainment Television
. This is In Black America. Reflections of the Black Experience in American society. I'd like black entertainment television to be in every major urban market in America. And in every city with anything resembling a significant black population. For that matter, cities without black population because I think the interchange of culture will be good for white America as well. Good entertainment is colorblind. From a business standpoint, I'd like to be where we're underwriting a producing program
so that untapped talent out in Hollywood giving blacks an opportunity to show the kind of creative work and creative impact they can do. On the side of public affairs and impact on society, I'd like for black entertainment television to be a force in providing information of importance to black America. Things about our philosophy, our attitudes about the society. They really don't get portrayed on television in a meaningful way. And I think if we're able to achieve those three objectives, I'll be very happy with black entertainment television because wrap around all those three things. The company will also be a successful business venture. Robert Johnson is president and founder of Black Entertainment Television. Black Entertainment Television is this country's first and only black-oriented satellite network distributing programming to over 7 million cable subscribers nationwide. BET's black-oriented programming includes news and public affairs, black college sports, classic black films, and video music. Recently, Black Entertainment Television celebrated its fifth anniversary on the air. The 24-hour cable service had lengthy articles in broadcasting magazine
and the New York Times newspaper. At the present time, there are over 1,000 cable companies serving cities with an 8% or above black population which currently do not carry Black Entertainment Television or any other Black-oriented service. I'm John Hansen. And this week, our focus is on Black Entertainment Television with founder and president, Mr. Robert Johnson, in Black America. The other issue that I wanted to ring about is the whole question of control of pathways and control of access. I'm really essentially not in the cable businesses and own. I'm president of the group that won the DC franchise and owns some shares in it. But really not an owner in that sense. The company that I own is Black Entertainment Television which is a cable programming service. And we distribute programming via satellite currently to about 7 million homes. We currently program 42 hours a week. Beginning in October will begin programming 24 hours a day of programming to cable subscribers across the nation. The problem we encountered there is one, as I said before,
programming off satellite, we've got a hungry audience waiting to see it and as Reagan pointed out, from the readership, you've got Black readers and you've got Black writers. In our case, we've got Black Entertainment that's totally untapped and underutilized. What we need is access to the subscriber, to the household. In most markets, we don't control the cable franchise. In fact, in all of them, in the majority of the markets, we don't control the franchise. We control by the local cable operator. The cable operators, who operate systems and markets with significant Black populations, are simply denying access to those Black subscribers who in aggregate spend over a billion dollars in signing up for cable television. And yet, cable operators refuse to carry in some cases our programming or to produce local programming to the black consumer marketplace. And I think that this is a tragedy that I want to bring to you attention. And I'm basically in the business of selling advertising. Obviously, if I can't reach the people I want to reach, I can't sell the advertising.
And if I can't sell the advertising, I can't produce the programming. And therefore, the diversity of voices, diversity of ideas, have been opinions about Blacks, everything from taking grandling football nationwide to providing family-oriented programming to public affairs and news programming is not in the Black marketplace. One thing we're going to do is we now program 42 hours a week, but two, three hour blocks. We will now program three, eight hour blocks. And we'll just repeat the programming essentially. That's what you do in cable television. You repeat the program and get it for 24-hour a day. We will add four solid hours of what we call Urban Contemporary Video Music. On to the back, it's been expansion of the program we got now called Video Soul, except it'll be more video music, probably without DJs. We will also add a one-hour talk show out of LA, Sammy Davis, Jr. is taping a pilot for us. And if he likes the pilot that he's going to do, he's going to do 26 one-hour talk shows out of Los Angeles. We will be adding a show that sort of a, I guess,
a poor man's version of entertainment tonight targeted at Black entertainers, focusing on what's happening in the Black Entertainment world. We will also add a one-hour news omnibus kind of news wrap-up show at the end of the week, something focusing on what happened this week in Black America. We have an agreement with ABC News to get access to all the ABC News footage. In addition, being in Washington, we're sort of headquartered and where much of what happens is news. We will pull that together. We will add a female oriented program sort of a talk show to the network and we'll continue to improve on the current programming we got. And of course, we will continue our full season of Black College Football Basketball and we'll be acquiring some additional syndicated program. But basically, the main thrust will be improving in the programming, more music, and a better network operation. Since January 25, 1980, Black Entertainment Television has been providing programming of a Black Oriented nature to over 7 million cable subscribers nationwide.
Robert Johnson, a network's founder and president, began designing and developing the concept while serving as vice president for government relations with the National Cable Television Association. The NCTA is the trade association for the cable television industry. Motivated by the growing emphasis on increasing the involvement of minorities in the cable industry, Mr. Johnson capitalized on his contact within the cable TV industry plus the encouragement and support of the NCTA to launch the VET venture. In 1984, Robert Johnson charged the cable industry with failure to serve viewing interests of the Black Cable subscribers. Mr. Johnson's criticism of the cable industry was directed at cable operators who refused to provide programming of interest to the Black community while at the same time extracting in excess of $1 billion in 1984 and subscriber revenue from Black Cable subscribers. When Black Entertainment Television began five years ago,
it used existing programs from broadcast and film industries. VET distributes its programming using a domestic communication satellite. Video tapes are sent from the VET offices to the USA Network where the programs are transmitted up to the satellite. Black Entertainment Television got started in my mind about 1978 when I was at the National Cable Television Association and saw the growth of cable in the major urban markets and the need for a Black programming network to serve Black subscribers around the country. And in 1979 of January, we went on the air with the Black Entertainment Television. Did you put together a group of investors or was this a sole business that you started? It started out pretty much as a sole business. I was a lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association. I decided to take a risk and quit my job and borrowed $15,000 that I signed along with my wife as a co-signer.
I talked to a couple of executives in the cable television industry and found out that the president of TCI, the nation's largest cable company, liked the idea and he became my second partner and from that we put the business together. Without the advent of cable or satellite, would Black Entertainment Television be a reality today? No, it would not. The technology that allows the distribution of programming outside of the traditional network for system feeding stations that are limited in the number that you can have in a market. Cable television is able to expand the diversity of programming choices because a satellite can reach the entire country. Cable systems have anywhere from 30, literally up to 100 channels. So you can provide programming to target smaller audiences and diverse demographic groups. And that's exactly what Black Entertainment Television does. In the beginning, Black Entertainment Television was someone a limited service, not has increased. During that time, was it difficult in finding quality programs,
the family-oriented programs for the network? Well, that's right. We started out as a two-hour week service. Then we went to 42 hours a week and October will go in the air 24 hours a day. The key for us is finding good, Black-oriented programming. Most programming is produced with the idea it will sell in a number of ancillary markets. Well, if you produce programming sort of target to a narrow group, you limit your auxiliary, ancillary sales. So we have to develop program and plus the other factor is we don't have the subscriber base or the revenue base to produce a lot of original work. So we've got to rely on stuff that's in the can or stuff that we can produce in a limited studio version. But as we see it, we've got tremendous untapped Black talent in the Hollywood community in fact throughout the country that's waiting there. And it's just a matter of growing in households, getting more subscriber revenues, getting more advertising revenues, and therefore producing Black programs. The creative talent is there, it's just a matter of the dollars to underwrite it.
You mentioned in your press release today that a lot of Black Americans that subscribe to cable are not having the opportunity to watch BET. What can they do to remedy that situation? Well any person, Black or White for that matter, listening to this radio station and in a market where there's cable, should immediately contact the cable operator and ask them to carry Black Entertainment Television. Black Americans as a whole spend about a billion dollars a year in cable subscription. This is the basic monthly fee that you pay for the service, not mentioning the HBO or the pay service you might have. Yet our service to the cable operator costs three cents as a subscriber. So we believe that cable operators have an obligation to provide diversity. They're taking money from the Black community but not putting any quality Black programming back in. And they have a monopoly on the service so there's no other place to get us except via cable. So I think Black Americans should tell the cable operators you're taking my money, give me some programming that I want to see and not just duplicate what I can already get over the air
or what I'm getting in from the other networks that don't provide any Black programming. How do you go about deciding on what programs will be aired on BET and what programs will be initiated in new fall season or what program. The time the program is going to be aired, etc. Well our basic program approach of course is a target program to the Black consumer market. And that means program that features Black entertainers and leading roles that address Black cultural themes and lifestyles. What we decide to do is basically really what we can afford. We sort of approach it from the back way. We establish a budget as to what we can put into programming and then go out and look for the programming that can meet that budget. Yet at the same time maximize the quality of the product and be attractive to advertisers. Obviously we know football is a good attraction for advertisers who want to reach the male viewers. So we do 11 Black college football games and 10 Black college basketball games. We know there's a demand for programming that will reach the Black female. So we do a cooking show and we do a women's oriented talk show.
We know there's an interest in reaching people 18 to 49 with the video music program. So we produce a lot of video music program. We also try to provide program that I think speaks directly to the Black viewers interest in providing and gaining more information about Black America. So we will have starting in the fall a 30 minute news wrap-up show that will deal with news issues over the week that affected Black America. We have an entertainment show that will deal with Blacks and the entertainment business. And we keep looking for innovative approaches that are within our budget to develop, prevent, or track the audience and hold the audience and help the network grow. How did you come over to the particular B and start logo for BET? We were looking for something. We said the network was Black and entertainment television or BET. We liked the title. I mean BET really means bet, which is a term that's used probably just you'd say it so many times you don't realize how many say it.
It's a term that has good currency if you will in the Black community. So that has a ring. The logo, which is a bright gold star under a Black B, is really we were looking for something that would depict entertainment. Something that would be show a little bit of flash and a little bit of pizzazz. And at the same time, we wanted something that was strong statement about our commitment to Black programming. So we came up with the logo of a star that implies the Hollywood kind of entertainment side of it. And the B, which is in the Black field of it, which represents our commitment to the Black Entertainment business. At the present time, how many homes does BET show there? BET can be received today in over 7 million cable TV households across the country in about 370 markets. Well, by comparison, there are over 6,500 cable TV systems in the country. And we've identified 1,000 cable systems in markets with a Black population that exceed 8%. And some go as high as 99% that don't carry Black and entertainment television.
And these are the people I refer to as programming slum lords who take everything out in terms of the feet of Blacks and subscribers. But like slum lords who own tenants that Blacks live in, don't put anything back to rehabilitate and make the housing better. So we're calling on everybody in Black America to call up on the, to urge a cable operator to put Black Entertainment television on their systems. Besides being in programming with cable, you're also a franchise owner in the Washington DC area, partial franchise owner. Why is cable television this industry attractive to Black Americans or should be attractive to Black Americans? Well, I think the two reason one is it's an obvious business opportunity. And I think Black Americans are becoming more and more business or any more and more aware of the opportunities as the doors open in terms of financing capability and knowledge of what's happening in the business. The second reason I think is, one reason I think Black Entertainment television generates so much excitement is that Blacks have long been denied a voice, a chance to express their ideas, their philosophy, their opinions, in a medium where they have the control and the sale of what will go on that particular program. So I think that the combination of cable television being both the business and a medium where you can communicate ideas using the visual form, which I think is the most powerful form of communication in the world, then I think that has some attraction for Black entrepreneurs and Black business people.
I was told, no, here's the deal we'll do. You be one third, I'll be two thirds. I said, well gee, I live here, it's my town. Let me at least be 50-50 at a deal and it's washing. And now you're two thirds and I'm one third. So I said, well, no, we can't do it like that, let's go on and be it. So that one group fell out. There's another group waiting in the wings and we went to them and they didn't have a lot of money, but they had a little bit of political clout. So we said, look, here's a deal we'll do with you. Come on in. And for what you've done and preparing your franchise and it costs a little bit of money to put you together application. We said, look, we'll give you 20% of the deal just for the sweat equity you put into your application. They said, tell you what, give us the 20%, but it can never be diluted no matter how much money you ever need. We said, no, if you got to pay your way, I mean, we'll give you the first 20, but if we keep having cash calls, you got to maintain 20.
Now, no deal we think we can win. So what happened in essence was that three Black groups, all intelligent people, all knowledge about the communications business, all knowing we didn't have the money, went up and fought out a fight where we ended up going out getting white companies to be our financial backers. The end result is we do have a plaque on franchise, but significantly leverage in terms of debt to white companies. Didn't have to happen that way. But that's just a problem that happens in a very competitive environment like cable television where people see lucrative franchise, lucrative money, and it's a very tough business. But I think that's something that is going to happen in cable television in the remaining cities, and it's going to be someone unfortunate. I think the end result is going to be, as I said, the same companies that own cable properties throughout the nation will own the major urban cities, even though we do have the political clout to get the franchises. In your opinion, what do you foresee the future of Black and entanglement television? What would you like for it to be 10 years from now if we're sitting here today at the NABJ conference talking about Black and entanglement television? 10 years out, I'd like Black and entanglement television to be in every major urban market in America, and in every city with anything resembling a significant Black population.
For that matter, cities without Black population, because I think the interchange of culture will be good for white America as well, good entertainment as colorblind. From a business standpoint, I'd like to be where we're underwriting and producing programs for that untapped talent out in Hollywood, giving Blacks an opportunity to show the kind of creative work and creative impact that they can do. On the side of public affairs and impact on society, I'd like for Black and entanglement television to be a force in providing information of importance to Black America. Things about our philosophy, our attitudes about the society, that really don't get portrayed on television in a meaningful way, and I think if we're able to achieve those three objectives, I'll be very happy with Black and entanglement television, because wrap around all those three things, the company will also be a successful business venture. How did you all go about obtaining the classic Black films? The interesting thing about those films is, these are films produced during the 30s and 40s, many by all Black production companies and most of them, almost all of them with all Black cast. The fact is, these films were produced during the 30s when they had segregated theaters, so in effect they had a segregated film industry.
Many of them were funded under the Depression under the WPA program for artists, so Blacks got this year that the films were played in segregated theaters. The Black production companies, for whatever reason, did not renew the copyright license on these particular titles, and so the copyright after a 26 year or 30 year period lapsed. And these films are housed in the Library of Congress in the public domain, anyone could go in and get them all, you need to do a spade of the cost of duplicating the film. And there you can exploit them from now on in commercial use, because they are in the public domain, so we've taken those films and air them on our show on BET, called them Best Black Film Classics. Most of the programs on BET are on tape. Do you foresee in the future, near future of doing, say, a live program via satellite? Starting in October 1, when we go in the air 24 hours, we will have a once a week live call-in show called On the Line With. It's been on once a month now, and we've had such success with the show that we're going to make it once a week.
It's going to be an open forum for Black viewers to call and express their opinions and ideas on a number of issues, as well as to hear from interesting personalities in the politics, business, entertainment, world, as well as people who are doing interesting things. So we see that show as really being one of our flagship shows in the new network. Basically, what I want to talk about is the cable television business, a little bit about my business. And where I see it's going in 1984 and beyond, unlike what Adam was saying here about the window being open in radio and broadcast properties, low power TV and other things, MDS and so on. I think the window is closing in cable television, and I think it's fairly much closed on minority ownership at about the state it was maybe three or four years ago. The reason principally being is that cable television, unlike broadcasting, is very, from a startup standpoint, very capital intensive. It will take you on the order of $130 million to wire a city like Washington, D.C.
And the fact of the matter is there are only so many cities at that size where blacks have the political clout to put together a award-winning application in a city. So with the remaining top 12 cities remaining to be wired for cable television that's that haven't either granted franchises and the process granting franchises, I think you're going to see very limited minority ownership beyond that. And the end result is that cable television as a technology, which I think can be very important in providing diversity of voices and diversity of ideas, will end up pretty much in the same hands of the people who control the over the air television media and much of the other communications pathways in the nation. What I've gotten involved in on the operating side was to put together a group in Washington to go after the franchise. And we were successful in doing that. We were unsuccessful in doing what I hope we would do. And one thing Reagan said, when you talk about radio properties, it used to be you didn't go in other people's backyard and try to get their franchises.
We thought that would be the case in Washington. Well, it didn't work that way. We had other people coming in what we thought our backyard wasn't trying to get the franchise. And when we went to him and say, hey, look, this is the time it's got truth. I won't mention the names. But anyway, we went to him and said, gee, you know, you coming in here and we understand that you're a good person. Okay, what we'll do is everybody's black in town and black mayor black council. We're going to get it. You know, somebody's black is going to get it. Let's not fight about it. Neither one of us has enough money to finance it. Let's do a 50-50 deal. I was told, no, here's the deal we'll do. You be one third. I'll be two thirds. I said, well, gee, I live here. It's my town. And, you know, why don't you let me at least be 50-50 at a deal and swash it. And now you're two thirds and I'm one third. So, you know, I said, well, no, we can't do it like that. It's gone in fear. So that one group fell out. There's another group waiting in the wings and we went to them and they didn't have a lot of money, but they had a little bit of political clout. And so we said, look, here's a deal we'll do with you. You come on in. And for what you've done and preparing your franchise and it costs a little bit of money to put you together application, we said, look, we'll give you 20% of the deal just for the sweat equity you put into your application.
It said, tell you what, give us the 20% but it can never be diluted no matter how much money you ever need. We said, no, if you got to pay your way, I mean, we'll give you the first 20, but if we keep having cash calls, you got to maintain 20. Now, no deal we think we can win. So what happened in essence was that three black groups, all intelligent people, all knowledge about the communications business, all knowing we didn't have the money, went up and fought out a fight where we ended up going out getting white companies to be our financial backers. The end result is we do have a plaque on franchise, but significantly leverage in terms of debt to white companies. Didn't have to happen that way. But that's just a problem that happens in a very competitive environment like cable television where people see lucrative franchise, lucrative money, and it's a very tough business. But I think that's something that is going to happen in cable television in the remaining cities and it's going to be some of the fortunate. The end result is going to be, as I said, the same companies that own cable properties throughout the nation along the major urban cities, even though we do have the political cloud to get the franchises.
The other issue that I wanted to bring about is there's a whole question of control of pathways and control of access. I'm really essentially not in the cable business as an own. I mean, I'm president of the group that won the DC franchise and owns some shares in it, but really not an owner in that sense. The company that I own is Black Entertainment Television, which is a cable programming service. And we distribute programming via satellite currently to about 7 million homes, beginning in October, we currently program 42 hours a week, beginning in October, we'll begin programming 24 hours a day of programming to cable subscribers across the nation. The problem we encounter there is one, as I said before, we can deliver the programming off satellite. We've got a hungry audience waiting to see it. And as Reagan pointed out from the readership, you got black readers and you got black writers. In our case, we got black entertainment that's totally untapped and underutilized. What we need is access to the subscriber to the household. In most markets, we don't control the cable franchise. In fact, in all of the majority of the markets, we don't control the franchise. It's controlled by the local cable operator.
And so what I've done is some of you may have in front of you is the issue of press release saying that the cable operators who operate systems and markets with significant black populations are simply denying access to those black subscribers who in aggregate spend over a billion dollars in signing up for cable television. And yet, cable operators refuse to carry in some cases our programming or to produce local programming that means significant to the black consumer marketplace. And I think that this is a tragedy that I want to bring to your attention. And I'm basically in the business of selling advertising. And obviously, if I can't reach the people I want to reach, I can't sell the advertising. And if I can't sell the advertising, I can't produce the programming. And therefore, the diversity of voices, diversity of ideas and opinions about blacks, everything from taking gambling football nationwide to providing a family order programming to public affairs and news programming is not in the black marketplace. So I look at what's happening in the cable television business today as one of fighting for control of the pathways, control of a way to communicate your ideas and your opinions to the population that's currently underserved by the traditional broadcast methods.
That's what we're trying to do with black entertainment television. I certainly hope that I can count on your support in those markets where there is cable and they don't carry black entertainment television. It is simply, it's very simple process to do so. All the cable operator needs to do is make it available. And we believe that in order for us to be successful, we're going to need that kind of broad distribution nationwide. And since when I worked for Walter Fontroy, you used to tell me you make your friends before you need them. So I'm down here making friends. And I hope I can count on you for your support. Thank you. Essentially, Mr. Johnson sees black entertainment television as a medium for developing commercial entertainment targeted to the mainstream of black America. I've been speaking with Mr. Robert Johnson, founder and president of black entertainment television, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.
If you have a comment or like to purchase a cassette copy of this program, write us the address is in black America, longhorn radio network, UT Austin, Austin, Texas, 787-12. For in black America's technical producer, David Alvarez, I'm John Hanson. Join us next week. You've been listening to In Black America, reflections of the black experience in American society. In Black America is produced and distributed by the Center for Telecommunication Services at UT Austin. And does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Texas at Austin or this station. This is The Longhorn Radio Network.
- In Black America
- Black Entertainment Television
- Producing Organization
- KUT Radio
- Contributing Organization
- KUT Radio (Austin, Texas)
- AAPB ID
Copyright Holder: KUT
Guest: Robert Johnson
Host: John L. Hanson
Producing Organization: KUT Radio
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: IBA24-85 (KUT Radio)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “In Black America; Black Entertainment Television,” 1986-04-29, KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 28, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-np1wd3r873.
- MLA: “In Black America; Black Entertainment Television.” 1986-04-29. KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 28, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-np1wd3r873>.
- APA: In Black America; Black Entertainment Television. Boston, MA: KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-np1wd3r873