From Cable Lobbyist to Cable Mogul: The Inspiring Story of BET
• Robert L. Johnson, a former cable industry lobbyist from Freeport, Illinois, launched the cable television network Black Entertainment Television (BET) on January 25, 1980, with a $15,000 loan and a $500,000 investment from John Malone.
• BET initially shared channel space with other networks before becoming independent in 1983 and expanding to 24-hour programming by the early 2010s.
• The network has continued to innovate and evolve over the years; in 1991, it became the first black-controlled television company listed on the New York Stock Exchange; in 1998, it launched digital cable networks such as BET Her, and in 2017, partnered with Tyler Perry for original content like The Oval and Sistas.
• In 2023, Paramount Global considered selling a majority stake in BET but ultimately chose against this.
• BET Networks remains an enduring success story of determination, innovation, and representation.
Robert L. Johnson, a native of Freeport, Illinois, made a bold move after leaving his role as a cable industry lobbyist. Determined to make his mark, he launched his cable television network. With a $15,000 loan and a $500,000 investment from media executive John Malone, Johnson brought Black Entertainment Television (BET) to life on January 25, 1980.
BET started small, airing two hours of weekly programming on the Madison Square Garden Sports Network. The lineup featured music videos and reruns of popular black sitcoms. But it wasn’t until 1983 that BET became an independent entity, no longer sharing channel space with other networks. Digital cable technology eventually allowed for a 24-hour schedule, but it took until the early 2010s for BET to reach certain markets where demand for the channel could have been more recognized.
Over the years, BET has continued to evolve. In 1986, it launched BET News, featuring anchor Paul Berry. Ed Gordon would later take the helm, hosting various programs and specials. In 1991, BET became the first black-controlled television company on the New York Stock Exchange.
The late 1990s brought further expansion for BET. It launched digital cable networks like BET Her (originally known as “BET on Jazz”). It partnered with Starz to create “BET Movies: Starz! 3.” However, in 2001, Viacom acquired BET, making it no longer a black-owned business.
Under new leadership, BET thrived. It launched additional music-oriented networks like BET Hip-Hop and BET Gospel and original programming such as reality shows and discussion panels. Reginald Hudlin’s resignation in 2008 led to the appointment of Stephen Hill as president of entertainment.
Throughout its history, BET has continued to adapt and innovate. In 2017, Viacom signed a significant deal with Tyler Perry, creating original shows like The Oval and Sistas and launching the BET+ streaming service.
Fast forward to March 2023, and Paramount Global is considering selling a majority stake in BET Networks to support its flagship streaming service, Paramount+. Prominent figures like Shaquille O’Neal, Tyler Perry, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Byron Allen are potential buyers. However, in August 2023, Paramount Global abandoned its plans to sell, showcasing the enduring impact and success of the BET network.
From humble beginnings to an industry powerhouse, the story of BET is one of determination, innovation, and representation.
B.E.T.’s Sister Networks & International Spin-offs
B.E.T., the renowned Black Entertainment Television network, has expanded its reach with several spin-off networks and international ventures. These include B.E.T. Her (formerly known as “B.E.T. on Jazz,” “B.E.T. J,” and “Centric”), B.E.T. Jams (formerly known as “MTV Jams”), and B.E.T. Soul (formerly known as “VH1 Soul”). Additionally, there’s SHO×BET, a premium Showtime multiplex network.
B.E.T. launched a branded channel on Pluto TV in May 2019 to cater to its African-American demographic. ViacomCBS also announced the launch of BET+, a premium streaming service, in June 2019. This service features an original series, with “First Wives Club” as one of its highlights.
But that’s not all. B.E.T. Gospel, established in 2002, provides gospel and religious programming to viewers in the United States. You can expect a mix of new and classic shows, uplifting music videos, gospel-themed series, and specials.
B.E.T. Jams, known for its hip-hop and urban contemporary music videos, airs on a thrice-daily automated wheel schedule. It’s a go-to channel for all fans of the genre in the United States and Latin America.
Delving deeper into hip-hop, B.E.T. Hip-Hop is a digital cable network dedicated to music videos. It features a playlist of B.E.T.’s vast library of older hip-hop videos.
Internationally, B.E.T. has made its mark. B.E.T. International caters to audiences in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East through satellite providers. The channel launched in the U.K.U.K. in 2008 and offers content from the main B.E.T. channel and locally produced shows. B.E.T. Play is an app that allows international access to B.E.T. content in over 100 countries.
It’s worth noting that B.E.T. also has a presence in Canada, available on most pay television providers since 1997. While the Canadian feed mirrors the U.S.U.S. feed, certain programs and films may be blacked out.
As a parting announcement, B.E.T.’s channel in the U.K.U.K. was recently shut down. However, B.E.T. content can now be found on My5 and Pluto TV.
With its diverse range of sister networks and international ventures, B.E.T. continues to captivate and entertain audiences worldwide.
Protests against BET’s programming and actions have been voiced by a diverse group of individuals, including Public Enemy rapper Chuck D, journalist George Curry, writer Keith Boykin, comic book creator Christopher Priest, filmmaker Spike Lee, Syracuse University professor Dr. Boyce Watkins, former NFL player Burgess Owens, and cartoonist Aaron McGruder. These critics have taken issue with the channel’s content and have prompted BET to censor suggestive material from its videos heavily.
Some scholars in the African-American community argue that BET perpetuates racism by reinforcing negative stereotypes about African Americans and negatively impacting the mindset of young viewers through an inundation of unfavorable images.
In 2006, BET continued its regular music video programming instead of providing live coverage of civil rights leader Coretta Scott King’s funeral. This decision was met with criticism, as other networks and news channels offered live coverage. BET defended its choice, stating that it aimed to provide a unique viewing experience for its audience. The network streamed the funeral live on its website, presenting pre-recorded reports during the broadcast.
BET faced further backlash when it did not air the funeral live, receiving negative attention from viewers and the National Association of Black Journalists. Reverend Delman L. Coates and his organization, Enough is Enough, organized protests outside the homes of BET executives, accusing the network of perpetuating negative stereotypes of black people through its music videos. Enough is Enough also supported a report by the Parents Television Council that criticized BET’s rap programming for its explicit and inappropriate content targeting children and teens.
Even BET co-founder Sheila Johnson has expressed dissatisfaction with the network’s current state. In a 2010 interview, she admitted to being “ashamed” of what BET had become, stating that she no longer watches the channel and discourages her children from doing so. Johnson recalled the original vision for BET, which was meant to be a television version of Ebony magazine focusing on public affairs and news. However, with the rise of music videos, she witnessed a shift in content that she disliked, particularly the portrayal of women.
(Note: Some details and specific criticisms have been condensed or omitted to enhance conciseness and clarity.