Robert Johnson


Interview Date: Tuesday June 17, 2003
Interview Location: Washington, DC
Interviewer: Brian Lamb
Program: Hauser Project

LAMB: Bob Johnson, in this interview for The Cable Center in Denver in the oral history, can you remember back to the very first moment you thought of doing something on television, in cable?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I can probably remember the time when I thought this was something that I would want to do and it would be between… I was at the NCTA in probably the latter part of ’79, when I would go to the conventions and see all of these new channels, these targeted channels cropping up, these niche channels, and it occurred to me at some point in time somebody was going to start a channel targeted to African-Americans and I was sort of in the back of my mind concerned that it might not be me, and that sort of drove me more than anything else is that sort of “why not me?” And that’s when it started to sort of become a passion, if you will.

LAMB: What was your job at the NCTA then?

JOHNSON: I was vice-president of government relations. My principle job was to lobby for de-regulation of pay TV. You remember the old pay TV rules that they had at the time, so because of that I got a chance to know all of the guys who were involved in programming development, as opposed to being so close to the operators, although ironically, the guy who ended up helping me the most in making BET possible with me was Dr. John Malone, an operator, but my first assignment was to be associated with guys like Ralph Baruch and Jerry Levin and Russell Karp and Bob Rosencrans, who were sort of the programming wing, more or less, of the industry.

LAMB: How long had you been at the NCTA in ’79?

JOHNSON: I started in ’76. I got in the industry… it was just sort of fortuitous. I was living over in southwest DC at the time and went to a party at a next door neighbor’s house, and was talking to this woman who we got to talking and she said, “You know, you’d make a good lobbyist for the cable industry.” I said, “I don’t know anything about cable.” And she said, “Don’t worry; when I got in I didn’t know anything about it either.”

LAMB: Who was it, do you remember?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it was Bob Schmidt’s secretary.

LAMB: What was her name?

JOHNSON: I want to say Carol, but I’m not certain. But she said, “I’d like you to meet this guy named Bob Schmidt.”

LAMB: Who was doing what then?

JOHNSON: Bob, at that time, was president of the NCTA.

LAMB: And you were doing what then?

JOHNSON: I was a lobbyist. Excuse me, I was press secretary for Walter Founteroy at the time.

LAMB: And who was he?

JOHNSON: Founteroy was a congressional delegate for the District of Columbia, and I’d been with him since ’73, and so about that time I was looking for a change of career, if you will, to sort of pick up another stripe. I worked for the Washington Urban League so I felt I had the social community kind of background. I worked on Capitol Hill as a press secretary for three years, so I had the political stripe, but I didn’t have any business background, didn’t have a business sort of a focus. So, I felt that gee, cable gave me both; there was business and the politics of lobbying for cable de-regulation, so when she mentioned the cable industry I said why not meet with Bob Schmidt? I met with Bob Schmidt and I think we met for like an hour or so up on Capitol Hill and he offered me the job as vice-president of government relations. He not only wanted to have somebody to lobby, but Bob had a strong commitment to minority opportunity and employment in the cable industry, so he hired me and I got my first job. It was a year of pay TV, and so I was in the middle of programming just like that.

LAMB: This may sound like an odd question, but how important was the fact that you were an African-American at that stage in your life? How much did you think about, and then, of course, it obviously leads to why a channel. But shape the world then for people that were African-Americans.

JOHNSON: I didn’t think about it in terms of I’m an African-American, ergo there follows some major mission in life because I’m black, but I recognized that as an African-American, I had to seek out opportunities in areas where African-Americans had not yet gone and cable was one of those. There were a couple of African-American guys who’d worked in the Cable Association before me, Don Anderson being one, and another gentleman by the name of Sam Shepherd, I think, but I felt that here was sort of virgin territory for someone who was African-American to sort of pursue a career opportunity in a way that no one else has done. And so it was an opportunity sort of laying out there for me, the way that I looked at it, and I felt what I had to do was to sort of be very effective, get to know the people in the room in a way that if I impressed them I would have other opportunities to do business with them or to form relationships with them. That was my thinking at the time, and then as the technology issue began to come to the surface – satellite cable, the marriage of satellite and cable – then it sort of hit me, “Aha! Here’s a chance to create something in the form of a content based business.” But it was more, “Gee, I’m in cable, I don’t see a whole lot of blacks in cable. Here’s a chance for me to be first in position to benefit from that.”

LAMB: Again, this is a very personal question, you may not want to answer it – how much money were you worth in your life in 1979?

JOHNSON: In 1979 I was a lobbyist for the NCTA, so I had a salary probably somewhere in the low 70s at that time, had my own home…

LAMB: Owned it or buying it?

JOHNSON: Buying my own home, and had a car I think I was paying a note on, and no savings at all, and that was it.

LAMB: Family? Were you married, and did you have children?

JOHNSON: Married, and I didn’t have any children.

LAMB: How old were you in 1979?

JOHNSON: ’79, you’ve got to go back almost 30 years, so 27.

LAMB: Where had you gone to school?

JOHNSON: I went to school at the University of Illinois and got an undergraduate degree, and then went to graduate school at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and got a Masters degree in International Affairs.

LAMB: What did you study at the University of Illinois?

JOHNSON: I was a history major. I got a degree in social studies, teacher education.

LAMB: What kind of a student were you?

JOHNSON: I was a good student. I graduated with honors in history from the University of Illinois. I did very well. I didn’t have to study that hard, at least I didn’t feel like I studied that hard. So I would say I was a good student, and in fact, the way that I got to Princeton was that I was sort of invited to be part of a Ford Foundation program to attract minorities into the foreign service, and the program was that if you completed the program satisfactorily, they would pay your way to any foreign affairs school that would accept you, and so I ended up going to Princeton.

LAMB: What city were you born in?

JOHNSON: I was born in Freeport, Illinois, a small town about 100 miles northwest of Chicago, the closest big city is Rockport, Illinois. Home of the famous Freeport Lincoln-Douglass debates, which you know a lot about.

LAMB: And what date were you born on?

JOHNSON: 1946.

LAMB: The day?

JOHNSON: 8 April.

LAMB: And your parents were like what?

JOHNSON: My parents were mainly basic factory worker people who had a fundamental strong belief in education; my mother had a strong religious background. She, I think, had a background as an elementary school teacher in the south. She didn’t teach when she came north in the early, just a little bit after I was born, say, so ’49 maybe, because I was about three years old when I moved up from a small town in Mississippi called Hickory, Mississippi. My parents always worked in factories in Illinois and led a basic working class kind of family life.

LAMB: How about brothers and sisters?

JOHNSON: I have nine brothers and sisters. I was number nine of ten.

LAMB: Are they alive today?

JOHNSON: All but two.

LAMB: And what’s your relationship with them today?

JOHNSON: You know, it was a big family and when you have a big family that grows across the spectrum over ten kids some you’re closer to than the others, so I think that sort of describes the relationship. The ones that are younger I’m probably closer to than the ones who are older.

LAMB: Back to 1979, you had no money in the bank. What was the situation in the cable business in 1979? How many channels were there?

JOHNSON: You know, when I always thought about cable at that time, it was still cable as a strong retransmission product, but also growing towards programming content. So you were looking at a 30-channel cable system, most of it made up of off-air signals and some stations that were carried in, long distance signals brought in from outside the market, and in most cases, obviously some local access channels of that type, but you began to see just under the surface the rise of basic channels and of course pay channels, but the programming was pretty much we’re selling broadcast programming with better reception, local origination, and the idea of antenna service.

LAMB: Can you remember the first person you might have sat down with – you’re at the NCTA working for Bob Schmidt, a vice-president, and you sit down with somebody and say, “I want to start a channel for black Americans.”

JOHNSON: I think the first person I started talking to about that was a guy… I can’t think of the guy’s name, but he was associated with Clive Runnels in Houston, because at that point Clive and those guys in Houston were building what was called a futuristic cable system, that they were going to wire the homes both with cable and burglar alarm systems and everything else, so they were sort of open to a lot of channel carriage because they were supposedly building this system with a lot of capacity, and Houston being somewhat of an African-American market, it sort of occurred to me I should meet this guy. The guy’s name, for some reason I think it was Mickey Riordan, or something like that.

LAMB: It’s not Gardner, was it?

JOHNSON: I don’t think so. I knew the guy because he was a financier type, and I sort of told him about my idea and talked about it to see if he could help me put together the money for it and everything else. Well, ultimately it didn’t happen, and then as I started to get more and more focused on the idea, I started talking to two people – Bob Rosencrans and John Malone.

LAMB: And what did each one of those contribute?

JOHNSON: Well, Bob was first of all a very sympathetic guy to young people with ideas that he wanted to help and support, and he had a dynamic executive named Kay Koplovitz who was working there with him, and so she was also a programmer in orientation. So he was willing to help me get on the satellite to get carriage, and I remember this, I’ll never forget this day: Bob was testifying up on Capitol Hill – I was still a lobbyist at the time – Bob was testifying on Capitol, he was making a presentation, and my job was to be the hand holder staff guy.

LAMB: Can you remember what date it was?

JOHNSON: I can’t remember the exact date, Brian, but it was somewhere before BET went on the air in 1980, so it’s got to be somewhere in ’79. Congress was in session, so it’s during that period of time. So Bob goes up and delivers his testimony, or he’s got a break before he goes to testimony, and I say, “Bob, can I talk to you a moment?” He said, “Sure, we’ve got a break. I’m going to walk down to the men’s room.” So we walked down the hallway in the Capitol, and I started talking to him about this idea for BET. I said, “You know, what I really need is access to satellite. I think I can get the programming, I think I can get the cable operators to carry it.” He said, “Okay, that’s something I think I can help you with. We can probably put you on in the back of our Madison Square Garden satellite. How many hours do you need?” I said, “Can I get just a couple hours?” And that’s what we agreed, that he would give me Friday night at 11:00 PM on the back of his satellite time.

LAMB: Do you remember what he charged you?

JOHNSON: I don’t recall, but it probably was somewhere in the neighborhood of $200-$250 an hour, something like that. It wasn’t a lot of money in that sense, looking back on it, but at that time it was, when you multiply that times 52 weeks, it started getting up to be some money.

LAMB: But you were still full-time with the NCTA?

JOHNSON: I was still full-time with the NCTA at that time, so that sort of got it going, and then later on, there was another encounter on Capitol Hill with a guy named Ken Silverman. Ken Silverman wanted to launch this channel for the elderly, and he asked me, again as a lobbyist, to accompany him to Capitol Hill to introduce him to various Congress members. He particularly wanted to meet Claude Pepper. Claude Pepper, former Congressman from Florida, chairman of something called the Select Committee on Aging in the House. So we were going to meet Claude Pepper, figuring he would be, obviously, supportive of this idea for the elderly. So riding in a taxi up to Capitol Hill, I said, “Ken, can I see your proposal?” He and I had been friends because he was also in the pay TV world with a company called CineAmerica, and he showed me his documentation and he had these statistics about the elderly. The elderly have certain living patterns, they buy clothes based on their demographics; they consume certain kinds of foods; they save in certain kinds of ways; and they spend in certain kinds of ways. I said, “Gee, Ken, you could say the same thing about the black community. The black community has certain buying habits; they have certain kinds of consumption patterns; they buy certain products; they have a certain kind of disposable income. Can I use your information?” He said, “Sure.” So wherever Ken had elderly, I simply – when I put together a proposal – crossed it out and put “black”, and just sort of augmented it with some information about blacks. That was the basis of a business plan for BET. There was never a whole lot of research done on it, not a lot of analysis, it was sort of taking the concept of it and doing the same thing – target demographic, elderly; poorly depicted on television; specific kinds of consumption patterns – it just mirrored the black community.

LAMB: Do you have any idea where Ken Silverman is today?

JOHNSON: No, I don’t. Every now and then… he called me, oh, it was about three or four years ago, maybe a little longer, he called me, he had some idea he was trying to get across and he used his “gee, Bob, I helped you, can you help me” kind of thing, and I think I either invested a little bit of money or gave him a little bit of money to do something, but no, I don’t know where he is today.

LAMB: But he never got the channel started?

JOHNSON: Never got the channel started. He tried. At one point he had backing and then the backing disappeared. I think a lot of people liked the idea. Kenny, I think, just wanted to make sure he held complete control over it, and he never could reach an agreement with any of the MSOs or any of the other investor types, because he unfortunately didn’t meet a guy like John Malone.

LAMB: That was also in ’79?

JOHNSON: That’s all in ’79.

LAMB: John Malone. How much did you know about John Malone being at the NCTA before you approached him on this?

JOHNSON: I didn’t know John at all. As I say, my principle lobbying role was with the programming guys, so I knew Ralph Baruch much better than I knew anybody.

LAMB: And what did he do?

JOHNSON: Ralph Baruch, at that time, was the CEO of Viacom, and he was somebody I knew very well, both Ralph and his wife, and so I was more into the programming guys. But Malone was somebody, and I can’t recall exactly how this happened, but I do know that I was at a board meeting, John was on the board, and I just happened to be talking to him and I said, “John, I’m thinking about doing something in able.” He said, “Bob, if you ever get an idea, call me.” John, as you know, is not the most glad-handing, open guy in the world, he’s kind of reserved, and you kind of approach him with a little bit of trepidation. He’s not like some of the other guys who I established much stronger relationships with as board members, like Bill Strange, who as you know, was the most easy-going, talkative guy in the whole industry; others in the industry who I can recall, who I got to know real well, Frank Drendel, and people like that, who are all what I call good friends. So when you start thinking about Malone, you don’t think of him as the guy that a young staff guy approaches easily, and then with his orientation being more of a political conservative, mine being a background of a liberal Democrat African-American, you would think that there would be not much of a connection, but as it turned out, there was. John just happened to be able to say “people I believe in, I’ll support” and fortunately for me, he believed in me. So when I finally got around to saying I’m going to do BET, I first made the rounds of some black business executives thinking that I wanted to have them involved in the deal. I talked to some black advertising executives about buying in because I figured they had relationships with Madison Avenue advertisers who target black consumers, and I would sort of use that way to approach the deal, but I couldn’t get an agreement at that level. So finally one day I called up John Malone and said, “I’d like to come out and talk to you about it.” So I went out and talked to him about it…

LAMB: In Denver?

JOHNSON: In Denver. They were in the old TCI building, the one with the fake plants. So I went in and I started talking to him about this concept, and John, interestingly enough, when we talked about it had the cable system in Memphis, Tennessee, shared with ATC, I think, at the time, and they were looking for ways to get programming in to sort of augment their franchise proposal and to be able to say we’re going to bring more programming in. He said, “Hey, you know this idea of putting programming on the satellite would help me solve my distant signal problem. So, yeah, if you can get programming… can you get programming?” I said, “Yeah, I think I can get programming.” He said, “Well, if you can get programming, I think I’d be interested in helping you out, being your partner in the deal.” I said, “Okay, when I come back to you with something I’ll lay it out for you.”

LAMB: Still in ’79?

JOHNSON: Still in ’79.

LAMB: Let me jump ahead just a little bit. The first day you went on the air, what was the date?

JOHNSON: The first day we went on the air was January 25, 1980.

LAMB: How many hours?

JOHNSON: Two hours a week, Friday night.

LAMB: What did you have on the network?

JOHNSON: One movie and gospel programming.

LAMB: And the movie? Do you remember what it was?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it was something called A Visit to a Chief’s Son. It was a movie about an African boy and his father who met up with a white safari hunter and his son, so you had two fathers, two sons, and they meet together during this African safari and they learn each other’s culture and build a relationship. I thought it was a good kind of movie to put on because it would send a signal to the cable industry that I wasn’t going to be putting on radical left-wing black power programming. So it turned out to work.

LAMB: What did it cost you?

JOHNSON: Gee, I don’t know, I think for that film we were paying $500 a title, maybe $1,000, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to remember.

LAMB: What was the gospel music?

JOHNSON: Bobby Jones’ Gospel. It was just basically video clips of gospel programming.

LAMB: How long?

JOHNSON: It was about an hour.

LAMB: And so you had offices where?

JOHNSON: Offices at that time were over in Georgetown on Prospect Street.

LAMB: How many people worked for you?

JOHNSON: We had maybe five or six people.

LAMB: Who were they primarily?

JOHNSON: My sister worked for me at the time, I had a secretary named Carol Kooti who worked for me at that time, and some other… I had a secretary named Beverly. I don’t remember if Vivian Goudiet worked for me early on, I think she came on later, but she later came on about a year or so later, after she left the NCTA.

LAMB: How long did you only have two hours?

JOHNSON: I had two hours for about six months and then we moved to four hours, Friday night and Saturday night.

LAMB: How many cable systems were hooked in that first night?

JOHNSON: I think on the first night we launched we launched off the back of MSG, so whatever Madison Square Garden had… I think at that time, interestingly enough, when we launched with 3 million subscribers we had the largest subscriber launch of any programming service in the country because we were piggybacking on Madison Square Garden Sports.

LAMB: What did you charge?

JOHNSON: Nothing. It was free at the time. We were just anxious to get carriage. Cable operators were anxious to put us in their portfolio because it was designed to help them attract franchises in cities, so the operators were willing to carry it, but the programming was free, plus we were piggybacking on MSG.

LAMB: Where did you uplink from?

JOHNSON: We uplinked the signal out of Virginia, but I think it went down again at MSG and then they put it back up again.

LAMB: Did you rent studios or rent facilities?

JOHNSON: Yeah, we leased some facility out in Virginia from an organization, from a company.

LAMB: How much money did you have in the bank and where did the money come from?

JOHNSON: Well, the company at that time when we launched had been capitalized with the half a million dollars from John Malone. Now, prior to that, I think I had borrowed about 15,000 dollars from NBW that was guaranteed by a contract I had with the NCTA to stay on as a consultant, and then later on I got another 40,000 dollar loan from the bank. But when we really started the business, I went out to Denver after I had been talking to John Malone and I laid out basically what I wanted to do. John listened and he said, “I’d like to be an investor. How much money do you need to get it started?” I said, “I need a half a million dollars.” This all took place in no more than 30 minutes. He said, “Bob, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll buy 20% of your company for $180,000 and I’ll loan you $320,000. You’ll be 80% and I’ll be 20%. Is that a deal?” I said, “John, that’s a deal.” But what John didn’t know at the time, had he reversed the numbers and said, “You be 20%, I’ll be 80%,” I would have said, “John, that’s a deal.” But he didn’t say that, and later on after BET had grown and got bigger, I asked John, “John, why didn’t you change the numbers around where you were putting up all the money and take a bigger percentage?” He said, “Bob, I knew that you would work harder for yourself than you would for me.” So, it was that level of support that he gave me. He called in his attorney, and I can’t think of the attorney’s name, but he called in the attorney, the attorney wrote out – John said here’s the deal, this is what we’re going to do – he wrote it all out, this took, like I said, took no more than 30 minutes, gave me the document, it was a one and a half page document, I signed it, he called in somebody from the finance office, they wrote me out a half a million dollar check made out to BET/Bob Johnson. It was more money than I ever knew existed in my entire life. I never knew that kind of… It was almost so much money I was scared. I would say, “Oh, something bad’s going to happen. The plane’s going to crash or somebody’s going to rob me or something’s going to happen.” But it was that half a million dollars that John sort of put in my hand and gave me the feeling that this thing had some potential. So I get the check from John, and I signed the document, and as I’m leaving I said, “John, can I ask you a question?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “John, I’ve never run a business. What advice can you give me?” He said, “Bob, the only thing I can tell you is get your revenues up, keep your costs down.” That was my business 101, and from that point on, based on what John said, whenever I would run BET the budget would go like this: how much money are we going to make? And I’d say, okay, we’re going to make 2 million dollars this year, then I would say, we’re going to spend less than 2 million dollars, and that’s the way I budgeted BET every year until it became cash flow breakeven, always spending less than what I was going to make. As we grew we had to get more money in, but it was debt money, never based on spending.

LAMB: What kind of a corporation was it?

JOHNSON: It was a regular corporation.

LAMB: Who was on your board?

JOHNSON: I was on the board; Malone was on the board; my wife, Sheila, was on the board at that time, and Ty Brown and Herb Wilkins.

LAMB: Tyrone Brown used to be an FCC commissioner.

JOHNSON: Ty Brown was the second African-American appointed a commissioner, and a good friend of mine.

LAMB: And Mr. Wilkins?

JOHNSON: Herb Wilkins was a venture capitalist who had been part of a group of minorities that were trying to make sure that minorities got more ownership in cable and he had sort of partnered with some individuals in owning a cable system out in Columbus, Ohio, with a guy named Bill Johnson, who’s not relation, Herb helped him get his first cable system and also some other people around the country. So he had a telecommunications/cable investment background.

LAMB: How long did you continue to be a consultant at the NCTA?

JOHNSON: I was a consultant at the NCTA, I think that contract lasted for about six months after I started BET.

LAMB: And you said six months into you went to Saturday nights.


LAMB: Two hours or four hours?

JOHNSON: Two hours.

LAMB: When did you expand? What was the progression on expansion until you had your own channel?

JOHNSON: We went for one year as a four-hour – two hours on Friday night and two hours on Saturday night – channel.

LAMB: One year.

JOHNSON: One year, and we decided that we had to get more carriage. Well, obviously, MSG couldn’t give us more time, so we started looking for additional satellite time to get on the satellite. We got some more carriage under a deal with Group W. They had some satellite time, so we went on one of their satellites and we expanded to four hours a night, from 11:00 to 2:00.

LAMB: That’s three hours.

JOHNSON: That’s three hours, yeah. So, we went to three hours a night from 11:00 to 2:00, and eventually we decided that we had to go more hours so we decided we had to get our own satellite, and that’s when we started talking to the people at RCA about satellites they were launching and I remember a guy named Andy English was head of that, and the idea was to figure out a way to get more time by getting access to satellite time.

LAMB: So when did you go full-time?

JOHNSON: We went full-time in 1984.

LAMB: When did you start charging?


LAMB: You were free up until that point?

JOHNSON: We were free up until that point, yeah.

LAMB: And when did you have your first advertising?

JOHNSON: Our first advertising? When we started the network? As soon as we launched the network we got advertising. I’ll never forget, when I first announced that we were going to do it, I got a call from the guys at Anheuser Bush saying we want to be your first exclusive advertiser, and I think they paid, maybe it was $100,000 at the time, to be the exclusive advertiser on the entire network, and I mean exclusive. They had every spot you can imagine, billboards, everything. It was amazing that they saw this as a way to tap into the black consumer market. Had they turned that into equity they probably would have owned a third of the network at the time, but they were the original advertiser on the network.

LAMB: Do you remember what you paid yourself that first year?

JOHNSON: Yeah, because sometimes I go back and look at my contract that I had with John Malone and I think I paid myself about, I think it was roughly $65,000.

LAMB: When did you, if ever, start thinking about money? In other words, you say you had no money in the bank…

JOHNSON: Right, right.

LAMB: You were buying your house and had a car, you were married and no children, and then this all starts. Were you motivated to get into this in the first place because you wanted to be a rich man?

JOHNSON: Not really. I was motivated primarily because I didn’t want somebody else to do this. I felt that if I – within the cable industry, knew all the cable operators, saw the technology flying in front of me, had relations on Capitol Hill, had all the ingredients – I felt that I would be kicking myself for the rest of my life if I read in the newspaper that John Johnson, of Ebony Magazine, or Percy Sutton, of Inner City Broadcasting, announced that they’re launching the first black cable channel, and would then be successful at it to the gratification and applause of the black community. I thought gee, I would be kicking myself for the rest of my life saying, “I could have done that, I should have done that, why didn’t I do that?” And so that was my motivation, to be the first one to do this because I felt I was in the best position to do it, and so that’s what drove me ahead of a lot of other people – John Johnson had far more money, had a better business platform; Percy Sutton had far more political contacts and name visibility, and there were other celebrity types who could have done it. Bill Cosby could have done it, other kinds of celebrities could have gone and got backing. Quincy Jones was a big friend of the people at Time Warner, and so on. I’m just terrified that these well-known, well-positioned African-Americans are going to take what could have been my platform to do something in an industry that I knew everybody in. So that’s what principally drove me.

LAMB: Did anybody in the African-American community try to start something along the same lines while you were starting?

JOHNSON: There were people who were always talking about the idea. It was always the currency out in black Hollywood that there needed to be a channel or programming that covered African-Americans in a positive way. There was a need for an African-American channel or a black channel. There was one organization called BEST – Black Efforts for Soul in Television; there was the Cable Communications Center headed by a guy named Pluria Marshall, who was trying to create that kind of support within the black community. So there were a lot of people bending ideas around. Percy Sutton was sort of talking about it because he was applying for cable franchises up and down the east coast. So the idea was out there. I knew somebody was going to do it. It was either going to be me or somebody else.

LAMB: Carriage. You were on Madison Square Garden. All those sporting events went out the same pipeline that took you out there for that period of time. When did you start charging for carriage, and who were your big supporters in the beginning who actually put you on the systems instead of just paying for it?

JOHNSON: Well, when we got started there was a little bit of a scramble to carry our programming, particularly in the urban markets. As cable got into the urban markets, everybody wanted to show the urban city council members, the black city council members, they had programming. I remember the big fight in Pittsburgh between, at that time, ATC, TCI and Warner, I think, were all fighting for Pittsburgh. I remember getting calls from everybody saying “We want to be the first to announce that we’re going to carry BET in our market. Can we put you in our franchise? We want to be the first; we want to put out the press release with you.” So there was a lot of interest in carrying the programming during the franchise wars because it was sort of a coup to be able to say you’re going to carry black programming and use that to leverage the black city council people. So we got support for carriage, but at that time nobody was paying. Well, in meetings with Malone, and at that time Taft Broadcasting by that time had become an investor. Taft Broadcasting had some cable partnership with Malone and of course they were looking at getting into the programming business with their programming content. So we all came to the conclusion that we had to start charging. So we made a decision to start charging something like 2 cents or 3 cents a month per subscriber, and that was sort of what we did.

LAMB: What year?

JOHNSON: That was around early ’84, ’85.

LAMB: The time you went full-time.

JOHNSON: Right, by the time we were going full-time and we needed to have more revenue basically because the advertiser wasn’t there for it.

LAMB: Had your board changed at all?

JOHNSON: No, the board was still the same, hadn’t changed at all – except yeah, the guys from Taft had come on the board about that time.

LAMB: Do you remember the names?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Charlie Meacham, who was then the CEO of Taft had come on the board.

LAMB: Where did you get the name Black Entertainment Television?

JOHNSON: If you recall, I mentioned there was an organization that was started up to promote African-American media ownership as well as positive media content called BEST – Black Efforts for Soul in Television. I at one point wanted to use BEST – Black Entertainment Sports Television – but I figured that’d be too close to BEST, so I just dropped the “S” and went to the “E”, and it was just Black Entertainment Television. I liked the acronym BET because it had such currency in the black community, you know, bet on this, bet that, you bet. It was something that I knew black folks would catch on to right away, BET, bet, and so on. So that I liked, and the other is I wanted to put the emphasis on entertainment, and interestingly enough, for the first couple of years, people insisted on calling BET – for Black Entertainment Television – Black Educational Television. The feeling was that for any black network to succeed it had to be an educational product as opposed to an entertainment product. So a lot of times people would say the Black Educational Network, Black Educational Television, so on and so forth. So we had that run of that, and then a lot of people called it Black Entertainment Network, BEN, and I didn’t want “Ben” because that was the wrong image I wanted to send. So, Black Entertainment Television was the name from the very beginning.

LAMB: Excuse the expression, but when were you first in the black?

JOHNSON: I was first in the black, and I can remember handing out to the employees a plaque with a dollar enclosed in it, one of those Lucite block things with a dollar in it, and that was in 1986.

LAMB: How much were you in debt at that point?

JOHNSON: At that time, I think Malone over the period of a year… Malone and Taft, and then later Home Box Office had come in, the accumulated debt that had been put into BET over that period reached somewhere in the neighborhood of five to six million dollars.

LAMB: When did you first change programming from movies and gospel music?

JOHNSON: WE changed from movies and gospel music when we found out that we couldn’t buy enough movies. Once all of the other programming channels started exploding, everybody needed content. The pay channels needed content; the big super station channels needed content. So the movies became too expensive. So we started moving out of movies. We had run a series of something we called “Black Movie Classics”. We had gone to the Library of Congress and gotten a hold of old black movies that were produced during the Depression when the government funded the WPA and paid artists not only to do paintings and drawings and other kinds of things, but also to make movies, and there were a number of African-American producers at the time who produced movies, and those movies were in the public domain after so many years. We acquired those by going to the Library of Congress and having them basically give us a duplicate. We paid for the duplicate and they kept the master. In some cases we had gotten right to the masters, but most of them… we ran those for a while. But as we saw that the network was not able to either buy movies that were current movies, or buy current sitcoms, we started looking at music entertainment and music videos as an alternative source of programming. This was at a time when MTV, which started about the same time, was playing music videos 24 hours a day, but interestingly enough they weren’t playing music videos by African-American artists because they were a rock music channel and African-Americans didn’t do rock music, so they never played those videos if they were made, and the record companies didn’t make the videos. I remember coming out to a cable convention to introduce BET’s new programming line-up, so to speak, at a session, and we showed our first music video saying “From now on there will be a place for African-American music videos to be seen and heard by viewers all across the country”. Then we went to the record industry. We sent to the record industry… like an album. It was like a 76 LP kind of cover that showed the kind of programming that we would have and the carriage we had, and basically told them if you make the videos we assure you, we’ll give you a platform to show them. That’s when BET stepped into the music video business.

LAMB: Did you ever have to pay for the music videos?

JOHNSON: Never had to pay. There was an attempt by the record companies in the late-80s, mid-80s, they were trying to get the networks to pay for music videos, and this was a time when video channels and video shows proliferated all across the land. We had a channel, MTV had a channel, Turner tried to launch a channel if you recall, but every local TV station in an urban market had its video show, whether an hour or a half hour, everybody had a video show. The record companies saw this and said, “Gee, we should start making people pay for this.” Some people paid for exclusivity. For example, MTV at the time would pay for an exclusive Michael Jackson video or an exclusive Whitney Houston, or an exclusive Madonna, whatever. We resisted that because we didn’t want to get in that game. I remember on several occasions boycotting certain labels because they were saying we’re going to force you to pay, or they were agreeing to give MTV exclusivity on their top acts and we were playing their baby acts. We said, “If you’re going to play that game, we won’t play any of your acts at all.” So we fought that. That was a business decision I made that BET would never survive if we had to pay the record companies, so we were able to beat that back, and since that time as we got more carriage and greater visibility, greater penetration, greater brand acceptance, there’s no way that the record industry will ask you to pay for it.

LAMB: What happened to the business side of this as you went through this time period? A couple of things – you started in January 1980. What year did you sell?

JOHNSON: Started the company in 1980, January, sold and closed with Viacom in January 2001.

LAMB: And in 2001 when you sold, what was the company like then? What was the size?

JOHNSON: The company was probably about 500 employees doing close to almost 300 million dollars in revenue, a very profitable company. We had gone, if you recall, we were public in ’91. BET, in ’91, became the first African-American company publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. I remember we went down to a board meeting to make a presentation – John Malone was there, Dob Bennett was there, Herb Wilkins was there, Ty Brown – and we were going down to show John, give him our business performance. We looked at our numbers and Herb said, “Bob, BET is making so much money Malone is going to want you to take this company public because you’ve just got so much cash and no place to spend it.” I said, “Well, what do we do?” He said, “Why don’t you take about 10 million dollars of your profit and put it in another line item and call it “reserves”. You can show this is your profit, but then this 10 million will be over in capital reserves.” So I said, “Okay, we’ll try that and see if Malone picks it up.” We laid the documents in front of John, John’s looking at it sort of nonchalantly and he said, “Bob, the company’s doing well, the company’s really doing great. You’re really making a lot of money with the business. What’s this 10 million dollars over here.” Herb said, “Well, that’s capital reserves.” He said, “Reserved for what? You’ve got plenty of cash over here. Bob, this company ought to be public.” That was April at a convention in New Orleans. By October of that year, we were public. It was the fastest go public period that I’ve every seen in terms of taking a company public. So we went public in ’91…

LAMB: At what stock price?

JOHNSON: We went out at 17 bucks a share, stock on the first day closed at about 26 dollars. So we had a company at that time that had a market cap in excess of 300 million dollars, about 371 million dollars at that time.

LAMB: And how much ownership did you have then?

JOHNSON: At that time I had about 65% of the company.

LAMB: And John Malone had how much?

JOHNSON: John had about 12 ½, maybe 15, and Taft, at that time, had 3%, 4%, and HBO had the balance.

LAMB: And you personally had other things, like the DC cable system.

JOHNSON: At that time the District of Columbia cable system had been in operation. We started operating that in ’86, ’87.

LAMB: How much of that did you own?

JOHNSON: I owned about 20% of that.

LAMB: Who owned the other 80%?

JOHNSON: Part of it was owned by other investors in the city, and Malone (TCI) was our other partner and had about 40%.

LAMB: When did you sell that part of your portfolio?

JOHNSON: I sold that when AT&T bought TCI. We sold to AT&T then, so that would have been about three years ago.

LAMB: I don’t know whether this is public or not, but how much money did you come out of that with?

JOHNSON: I put in 100,000 dollars at the time, and I think we walked away with about 5 to 6 million dollars.

LAMB: Now, along the way you had one child.

JOHNSON: Um-hmm.

LAMB: Name?


LAMB: And how old today?

JOHNSON: Paige is 17.

LAMB: What was the birth year?

JOHNSON: Paige was born in ’89.

LAMB: Did your wife ever work in the company with you?

JOHNSON: She worked as an executive vice-president in charge of corporate affairs, and she served on the board.

LAMB: Now, along the way you are getting richer and richer, personally.


LAMB: What did you do about your own lifestyle during these years?

JOHNSON: The only thing I really did was I remember when we went public, we were sort of going through our rehearsal for making presentations to analysts, and the question they always ask you when you go public is are you going to sell any stock? And you’re supposed to have an answer like, “Well, of course, for estate planning from time to time I will sell some shares.” So during the rehearsal one time they asked me are you going to sell some stock, and I said, “Yeah, I’m going to sell some stock.” They said, “Well, why are you selling stock.” I said, “I’m going to build me a house.” They said, “That’s the wrong answer. Don’t give ’em that. You talk about you’re going to do this from time to time, etc.” But anyway, one of the first things I did was to build a home. I’ve always wanted to do that, so that was the primary thing that I did.

LAMB: When did you sense that people saw a change in you, that you were becoming successful with a network, but also successful financially, and people would come to you and expect things from you?

JOHNSON: I would say it really didn’t hit because people always saw BET as a… until BET went public, I would say ’91 because prior to ’91 BET was a privately held company, we gave out no information, we were not in the mainstream of black businesses, we weren’t even, I don’t think, listed that much on black enterprises lists because we didn’t give out that information. I was still basically living in the same house I’d lived in in northwest Washington for about ten years or so, and going to work everyday and doing things and not having a lot of disposable income. I wasn’t giving a lot of money away, wasn’t hosting a lot of fundraising events, so it was pretty much under the radar. I think ’91 when BET goes public, at that time then everything’s available to the public to read about and see, and all of the sudden now somebody sees 371 million, 65%, all of the sudden you’re a multi-millionaire, then people begin to notice that you have paper money anyway, and some things change, you’re paying yourself more salary, you’ve probably got a company car, and people in politics now can point to you as a publicly traded owner of a company. “A multi-millionaire”, they can say it and be comfortable because it’s true. So I would say ’91 is sort of when the awareness of the wealth creation from BET was coming to the forefront.

LAMB: As a member of the cable industry and one of the very few blacks in the cable industry, how were you treated by white people?

JOHNSON: I would say in the cable industry I was sort of in an industry where it was so few African-Americans that you basically went unnoticed and therefore it was sort of you were just a regular person in the cable industry. There was no reason to talk about black issues unless it was talked about in the context of more employment opportunities that would properly address minority… sort of committee for minority employment. I remember we had that, Dick Munro headed up the first one, but that was sort of the politically correct right thing to do; there was never much discussion. There was also a committee to deal with minority ownership, but again, it was politically correct, headed up by a guy named Jerry Green and Herb Wilkins. Sort of a little bit lip service to giving minority’s ownership in cable, but nothing was personal in terms of minority issues or racial issues because there were just so few of us. The advantage I had is that I was a known commodity to everybody, so if you go to a cable convention and if you’re black and you happen to be about 5’8″, you were Bob Johnson, no matter who you were. So it was a little bit of a joke, but I know Curtis Simons, when he first came to BET and became another face with the cable industry, for a long time he was Bob Johnson because that was the only name that they knew. The only thing in the course of my relations with the cable industry… it was all very friendly, very cordial – I don’t think I ever faced directly any kind of race discrimination. Now, I always felt that the cable industry shortchanged us on rate carriage because we were a minority service, and I think they somewhat shortchanged us on giving us more distribution because we were a minority service, as opposed to giving some other channel broader distribution against their demographic. It could be considered marketing, but the one thing about it is most of the cable guys that I associated with, we were all friends, so even if there were some who were less cordial on race relations, their friendship and affability and your belief that they cared about you or liked you sort of took over. I remember one time somebody told a joke that was sort of an off-color racial joke, was told in the context of we were all sitting around the bar like we do at a cable convention or in between the meetings or whatever. A guy told a joke, “Bob, have you heard about the fact that the Ku Klux Klan has acquired all the rights to the movie Roots?” And I said, “No, I haven’t heard about it.” He said, “You know what they’re going to do with it?” I said, “No, what are they going to do with it?” He said, “They’re going to run it backwards so it will have a happy ending.” It’s a bad racial joke, but in the context of guys, all sort of pioneers, all trying to build something, all sitting around having a drink, knowing that this guy is somebody you’ve known prior to this joke… you know, you don’t take offense at it, but you don’t necessarily encourage it, neither do you get up and smack the guy in the head and walk out. It was one of those things. But that’s the only time I can recall any kind of joke like that anybody would tell me. Nobody would come up and tell me jokes just on the base of race.

LAMB: What about carriage? The numbers? When you ended up selling BET, how many homes did you have?

JOHNSON: We had about 72-73 million homes.

LAMB: Not missing many.

JOHNSON: Not missing many, but not fully penetrated like other services, but not missing very many, and rates probably lower than any other service in the country.

LAMB: What was the rate when you sold?

JOHNSON: The rate is what it is today. It’s about 15 cents per sub.

LAMB: And how many other channels did you start?

JOHNSON: We started BET Jazz, which now exists in about 10 to 12 million homes; BET Gospel, which is a digital channel; BET Hip-Hop’s a digital channel. Those were the primary channels that we started. We’ve done some other businesses in other services.

LAMB: What year?

JOHNSON: What year? I don’t know. Jazz is about ten years old, so Jazz was around in ’91, ’92. These others have been more recent digital channels in the past year or so.

LAMB: Now, another issue in all this is you went private and then eventually you went back public again? Or did you sell directly?

JOHNSON: We went private. We were public for seven years, and John and I never felt that the public gave us the true value for BET stock. The stock was standardly traded, there was concern that we might take all the cash we were making and go into businesses that Wall Street didn’t like – the movie business or the restaurant business or whatever they didn’t like. They were just concerned because we had so much cash, what would this company do with this cash? So we had a lag on our stock. At the time of about 1996-97, we had decided that the stock was not going to move, it was undervalued, why shouldn’t we take the company private? We decided that we would buy in the shares, John and I, since we were the principle shareholders. There was about 30-32%, or so, of the stock in the hands of the public. So the stock had been trading on average somewhere between $25-26 a share. It had been that way for a long, long time. So, John and I said, “Well, we’ve got to pay a premium for it, so let’s put out a number and see if we can get everybody to sell it to us.” So we offered the shareholders 46 bucks a share for stock that had been trading for $26 for a long time, and do you believe it, the very next day the stock shot up to $62 a share. We finally end up buying everybody out at 63 bucks a share. So we bought the company out at 63 bucks a share.

LAMB: Where’d you get the money to buy them out?

JOHNSON: We borrowed the money from the Bank of New York. We had had a long-term relationship with the Bank of New York, so we borrowed the money from the Bank of New York, they did the deal. We bought out all the shareholders at 63 bucks a share, and ran the company private for a number of years, and then John always had in his deal… John never sold a share of BET stock in the whole time he owned it, but he had in his provision when we went private what we call a liquidity event, that at some point we either had to go back public so he’d get an exit strategy or we’d have to buy him out if he put his shares to us. So I knew that as an issue, and so we were looking around trying to figure out what to do next. It wasn’t a pressing issue, but it was something I knew I had to deal with. So the question is do we go public, do we try to find a strategic partner to come in, how do we grow the business? We were at one point coming very close to buying radio. Clear Channel had bought AM/FM and they had some stations they wanted to spin out. I called Lowery Mays and said, “Lowery, we’re thinking about getting into the radio business. Would you be interested in selling us a bundle of radio stations?” And he said, “Yeah, we’d love to sell to a minority, obviously. It would help us politically, but you’ve got to pay a price.” Radio stations at that time were just selling very high premium to value, we felt, but that was something we thought would be a way to grow the business. So Malone, Dob Bennett and I talked about it and we decided we’d do it. We called the Bank of New York, they could put together the financing; we were going to buy these stations from Clear Channel. We were right on the cusp of doing that when an announcement came out that AOL had acquired Time Warner. I sat back and I said, “Wait a minute. I’m getting ready to spend a billion dollars to buy distribution when AOL had just paid billions of dollars for content. So maybe the play is to sell content.” So we pulled back from the billion dollar acquisition of the radio properties, and that’s when John and I got seriously talking about maybe we ought to talk about finding a buyer. It happened that at that same time, Sumner had called John…

LAMB: Sumner Redstone.

JOHNSON: Sumner Redstone, CEO of Viacom, had called John talking about trying to buy Discovery. Well, John wasn’t ready to sell Discovery, but Sumner said, “Do you think you might be interested in selling BET?” Well, John said, “I don’t own BET. Bob owns it, so you need to call Bob.” So, Sumner called me and I said, “Gee, Sumner, I’m not really a seller right now, but I’d love to talk to you about being a strategic partner.” He said, “Well, we don’t do strategic partnerships, we usually acquire.” I said, “Well, I’m not ready to sell right now.” He said, “I’ll tell you what. You think about it, I’ll think about it, and I’ll call you later on.” Well, he did call back and I said, “Let me come up to New York and talk to you.” I met with him and Mel on the exact same day, interestingly enough, that United Airlines and US Airways announced their plans to merge, at which point I would have gotten the spin-off route called DC Air. So I had that press conference that morning at 10:00 with all the hoopla about the airline, and then after that press conference, about 1:00 or 2:00, Debra Lee, the president and chief operating officer of BET, and I went over to meet with Sumner and Mel. I left that meeting feeling that if I were going to do a deal, Mel and Sumner would be the two to do a deal with because Sumner asked me, he said, “Bob, what’s your goal for BET?” I said, “My goal is to make it the preeminent African-American owned media company in the world.” He said, “Well, that would be our goal, so if you want to do a deal, let’s talk about it.” When I left that meeting I said, “Let’s do a deal.” So we hired Allan & Company and they said, “Well, Sumner’s a deal, but you ought to talk to the other guys.” So we had a meeting out at their big conference in Sun Valley with some of the other players. We met with Messier of Vivendi; we talked to Rupert’s people at Fox, and talked a little bit with Eisner and everything else, but when it came down Sumner and Mel had the best relationship, they were doing an all stock deal, which both John and I wanted, and that’s sort of how that deal came together.

LAMB: At the time of sale you owned how much?

JOHNSON: At the time, let’s see, we had taken everybody back in, but we bought everybody out, so John had 35% and I had 65%.

LAMB: And the price that you sold it for?

JOHNSON: The price we sold it for was 3 billion dollars.

LAMB: Do you still have a relationship with BET?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I signed a five-year contract to keep the position as chief executive officer and chairman, so yes.

LAMB: How much do you work at it now?

JOHNSON: Oh, I’d say about 20-25% of my time is devoted to BET. I’ve got a terrific chief operating officer in Debra Lee and she’s doing a fantastic job leaving me free to do everything from basketball to hotels to whatever else I want to do.

LAMB: Do you feel differently about it now as chief executive officer but not owner?

JOHNSON: I think different in the sense that I’m not totally responsible for its future beyond my five years.

LAMB: When are those five years up?

JOHNSON: In ’05. So I don’t allow myself to think about BET in 2006 and 2007 other than with some nostalgia and with some hope and confidence that it’s in good hands with Viacom and Debra if she stays on. So, in that sense, but I’m not plotting and scheming to where I want to take BET next. So when I got out to Sun Valley, I’m not sitting there looking at these guys and saying is there a BET deal with this guy over here, or a BET deal with this guy over here, so I’m not plotting and scheming in that sense, nor am I as concerned about trying to say I’ve got to continue to put my stamp on this thing at BET. Somebody else is going to stamp it. So in that sense, but now looking at it, it’s how do I, if you will, make sure that whatever history of BET in terms of the role that I played, that story is told. For example, one of the stories I like to tell is that if you take BET from its beginning in ’80 to its sale in 2001, for every year BET existed it created 150 million dollars in value. So 20 times 150 million gets you 3 billion dollars, so every year we existed we added 150 million dollars in value. No other African-American company has ever done that. All of these firsts we were able to accomplish with BET, and BET, because African-Americans got into the stock market through BET we have created more African-American multi-millionaires than any other company in black America, or any other company in white America for that matter because very few African-Americans get in on stock in a start-up very early like they did at BET. Most African-Americans who get jobs in companies get in at a mature level as executives and they get options, but the options are based on a higher valuation.

LAMB: Do you have any idea how many millionaires you made?

JOHNSON: I would say if you count them all up and you include me it’s about ten.

LAMB: And if the figures are right, you’re worth over a billion seven, based on the sale alone, that’s forgetting the other things you might have had. Does that make you the richest African-American in the United States?

JOHNSON: In terms of personal net worth? Yes.

LAMB: And you started in 1979 with nothing in the bank.

JOHNSON: Started in 1979 with basically zero in the bank.

LAMB: Does this feel unusual to you?

JOHNSON: It doesn’t feel unusual in the sense that you understand how the value can be created. You start with a business, you get investors, you take it public, it grows, somebody buys it based on a value that they put on it. So, intellectually I understand how the wealth is created. Does it give you some sense of awe that you did it? Not so much because like I said I understand it. There are other people I’ve seen who’ve done it. Ted Turner did it, so you see people who do it, and in some cases you see people who get it who may not even deserve it. I think the thing that sort of makes me proud is the fact that I’ve always been a believer that one thing African-Americans should focus on is wealth creation and wealth preservation, and so to the extent that I was able to do this and I can use that as a platform to deliver a message, wealth creation and wealth preservation, is sort of the thing that I feel most proud of because it allows me to speak to what I think I can give voice to better. I’m not a civil rights activist, I’m not a humanitarian, I’m not a political activist in that sense, nor an artist. The expression of what I do best is I think I’ve had a track record in the wealth creation and the wealth preservation and I’d like to see more African-Americans focus on that. One way to do that is obviously through ownership, and one way to do that is understanding the economic system, and another way to do that is focusing on how you take advantage of those things.

LAMB: Let me just ask you a couple of questions in closing about the role BET played in news and public affairs. When was your first news program that you developed?

JOHNSON: I don’t know, but we did news early on because we felt that that was something we had to do to both, one, address our public’s concern, but also to act as a content that would sort of keep us from facing competition from someone else who would come out and say we’re going to be the news and public affairs channel because BET doesn’t do it, and I thought that would hurt us in terms of selling our product both to cable operators and to some extent the public, the black community. So we’ve had news for a very long time in various forms and formats, whether it’s a full news show, whether it’s news briefs, whether it’s public affairs shows. What I think we’ve done in public affairs is that I’ve often described BET, particularly as we got a little more visibility, as the network that some African-Americans turn to when they either can’t get their voice heard at all on the white media platform, or that they feel that they need a platform to get back into the hearts and minds of black people, particularly certain celebrities. Certain celebrities have had what I call loosely faux pas in their life, and they’ve sort of said, “Gee, now I’ve lost the white community.” A prime example early on was Vanessa Williams, the first African-American Miss America, but had some unsavory photos in Playboy that lost her her crown. Well, it also lost her her Miss America white kind of following, but she wanted to get back to the black community, so she came on BET to talk about that. Another example, when Whoopi Goldberg, who at that time was married to Ted Danson, there was some off-color joke that was told at the Friar’s Club by Whoopi and Ted and they wanted to explain themselves to the black community, so they came onto BET. And of course, the famous O.J. Simpson interview when white America would not give O.J. the interview he felt he should get. He just said, “I’m not going to put myself in front of a white journalist and be mistreated by that particular medium or that particular journalist.” Well, I started making calls and got through to some people who got to O.J. and we were able to get the O.J. Simpson interview that Ed Gordon hosted, and that turned out to be the highest rated public affairs show on cable at the time. So, we became sort of a place, if you will, for people who felt that “I’m not going to get my hearing in the white community, or I need to get back to the black community,” and O.J. obviously felt he had to do both of those things. So, that’s what we’ve been able to do in public affairs, and there have been other examples, the most recent of course being Trent Lott, where he came on BET wanting to talk and to share his particular point of view on what he said with the hope that it would get him back to the black community.

LAMB: As you know, you’ve been somewhat criticized in some places for not being, as you said earlier, a civil rights leader or a humanitarian, and you’ve talked about this before. What do you think your responsibility is as a black man, who’s been hugely successful, to the black community? Anything other than just a show of the ability to make it?

JOHNSON: I’ve always felt that what I do best is to speak to the black economic message, and that’s always been my thing. I can’t put on a mantle that I don’t wear comfortably; being the activist, being the community leader, being the social goodwill person. I don’t wear that robe. So what I feel most comfortable talking about is African-Americans should own more stock; African-Americans should save more; African-Americans should be comfortable being owners; African-Americans should seek to create and preserve wealth. So, that I can talk to. Now, a lot of people want a black owner or a black wealthy person to sort of be really the source of give us everything you’ve got to help other people who are less fortunate than you, and that’s really what a black person should do. I never bought into that model; I never bought into that ideology. So, we do get critiqued a little bit. One is, I mentioned earlier – we’re not the Black Educational Television Network, and some people think your responsibility is to deliver educational programming, or you’re not providing us with all the public affairs shows. We need to know more about housing, we need to know more about this. My thing is we do that. We do it in our way and we do it under our current message and format. So we do have a heavy focus on AIDS and we reach more young people about AIDS issues than any other organization in America. So we do address those issues. We have had the public affairs program that has broken issues and brought personalities to the network. We do all that, but I think what happened is, what has sort of been a part of our life for a long time, we have been the only one. There are six or seven news networks owned by white newscasters. There are how many generalist programming networks on cable, and how many other kinds of specialty networks that target the white Americans? We’ve been the only one, so every responsibility that anybody black would visit has to be visited on BET. So we had to be everything to everybody. Well, obviously you couldn’t run a business and be everything to everybody, and you certainly couldn’t run a business the way I wanted to run it and be everything to everybody. So I’m very comfortable with the suit that I wear in terms of what I’ve accomplished with BET. I’m very proud of it and believe it has done a tremendous service to the black community, particularly in the field that we chose, and that’s entertainment. There’s an entire industry that’s called the music industry that is built around BET, and in addition to that there’s obviously a lot of African-Americans who have gone on to be top professionals in their field because they got their feet wet at BET. They got their first start in business and in being talent and in other areas at BET. So, I’m very proud of that. When I look back on the 21+ year history of BET, BET by anybody’s definition has been a sterling accomplishment, and I think it will continue to be long after I’m no longer involved in it, and as far as I’m concerned I can’t see any reason why there won’t be a BET 20 or 30 or 100 years from now.

LAMB: Thank you, Mr. Johnson.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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