WASHINGTON -- Robert Johnson and Black Entertainment
Television are known for one thing: each other. Soon, they could go
their separate ways after a profitable 25-year relationship.
NAME: Robert Louis Johnson.
AGE-BIRTH DATE: 58; April 8, 1946.
EDUCATION: B.A., University of Illinois, 1968; M.A., Princeton
EXPERIENCE: Owner of NBA's Charlotte (N.C.) Bobcats,
2002-present; chief executive officer of Black Entertainment
Television, 1979-present; vice president, government relations,
National Cable & Telecommunications Association; 1976-1979; press
secretary for Del. Walter Fauntroy, D-D.C.; 1973-1976. Previously
held positions at the Washington Urban League and the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting.
FAMILY: Divorced; children Paige and Brett.
QUOTE: "I don't care how much we appeal to blackness as a
reason to spend your dollar. There's not one black person in this
room who will spend a dollar with a black business that didn't
deliver value, nor would I encourage you to do so. So we have to
Johnson is busy with other projects, including his losing NBA
franchise in Charlotte, N.C., while the deal that let him stay on
as BET's chief executive after he sold the network in 2000 expires
Stepping down at BET would give Johnson more time to pursue his
A divorced father of two, Democratic Party donor and consummate
schmoozer who counts former President Clinton among his friends,
Johnson set his sights high early on.
Not taken seriously when he first talked about serving a
then-untapped market, Johnson was 34 when he launched BET -- which
is celebrating its silver anniversary this year -- from the basement
of his Washington home in January 1980.
It is the country's first and largest black-oriented cable
network, and has proved an unmatched success.
"Nobody had a clue about cable back then," says Herman Penner,
a college roommate of Johnson's. "Obviously he dreamed a little
bit bigger than that and was successful at it."
A Mississippi native with a master's degree from Princeton,
Johnson led in other areas, too.
He became the country's first black billionaire after BET's sale
for $3 billion nearly five years ago. He is the first black owner
of a major sports team, the NBA's first-year Charlotte Bobcats,
which Johnson named after himself.
A lifelong sports fan, Johnson was a partner in the effort to
return baseball to the nation's capital, but he pulled out to focus
on basketball before the Washington Nationals arrived.
He owns several Hilton and Marriott hotels, one of the country's
largest black art collections and several film rights. He has a
stake in a jazz record label, is interested in developing real
estate and sought unsuccessfully to buy majority control of
Independence Federal Savings Bank, one of the largest black-owned
His plan to become the first black owner of a commercial airline
failed several years ago when the government opposed a proposed
merger that would have created a new carrier he sought to own.
Johnson, who turns 59 on April 8, is more than just BET.
"What he's doing is sort of the traditional way in which people
with a lot of wealth use it," said Ronald Walters, a friend and
professor at the University of Maryland. "They don't just do one
BET officials declined to discuss Johnson's future at the
network, which reaches more than 79 million U.S. homes -- about
three-fourths of those with television -- and 95 percent of black
homes with cable TV, according to Nielsen Media Research.
But he suggested in a recent Newsweek interview that the end
might be near. He declined requests for an AP interview.
"I don't plan to continue in my current capacity," he said he
told officials at Viacom, the New York-based media company that
owns CBS and MTV and bought BET in 2000.
Some analysts said they would not be surprised if Johnson
stepped down, noting that he largely has given up control of
day-to-day operations since the sale to focus on his other business
"He's no longer the figurehead that he used to be," said
Christopher Holmes Smith, a communications professor at the
Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern
If Johnson leaves, the question then becomes, "What happens to
Will its lineup, largely of black comedies and hip-hop and rap
music videos, remain or will Viacom step in and shake things up in
response to criticism of BET's programming choices?
Michael Lewellen, a spokesman for Washington-based BET, said via
e-mail that the network will continue as an autonomous business
unit of Viacom, the same as its other broadcast outlets.
Debra Lee, now BET's president and chief operating officer after
joining the network in 1986, is considered the most likely person
to succeed Johnson.
Last year, cable provider Comcast Corp. and black-oriented Radio
One launched TV One for blacks age 25 to 54, an older group than
BET's mostly youthful audience. Black Family Channel also is on the
With more competition on the airwaves now for black cable TV
viewers, one analyst did not see much change in store for BET
without its charismatic founder at the controls.
"There will be an opportunity to either find another symbolic
figurehead or do an actual reshuffling of the deck of BET's brand
and its organizational structure," Smith said. "But my feeling is
that won't happen. I think that in the near term it will be pretty
much full steam ahead in the direction that it's going."
Friends and former associates credit Johnson's determination and
business savvy for his accomplishments in areas where few of those
at the top are black. But where there is success, there usually is
some criticism along the way, and so it has been with Johnson.
He has drawn criticism from some quarters, perhaps most notably
from director Spike Lee, for BET's content. Critics have accused
him of "selling out" to the white owners at Viacom and took issue
with his decision to replace respected but unprofitable news and
public affairs programs with black comedies, music videos and
other, more profitable entertainment.
Johnson's defense is that he went into business to make money,
just as his white counterparts did. He also has complained that MTV
was praised for programming similar to BET's.
Said pop culture critic Ed Robertson: "If BET wasn't making an
impact it wouldn't be a target for satire or criticism. It's called
'Black Entertainment Television.' It's not the 'Black News