Robert Johnson's work, aspiration have changed the face of TV today Building a Dream

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- Were he not the founder of the nation's largest black-owned television network and a self-made multi-millionaire, Robert L. Johnson Jr.'s vision of a media empire anchored by a pro basketball team might be easy to dismiss.

But this is the man who launched Black Entertainment Television 15 years ago with borrowed money and just two hours of programming a week and turned it into a cable-television network that reaches nearly 40 million viewers and earns about $15 million a year in profits.

So people listen as the 48-year-old broadcasting baron discusses his latest dream: to own the Washington Bullets and watch them play in a downtown arena before crowds studded with the power players of this town. He imagines the games being broadcast around the country, heck, around the world, on BET.

But there is this: Mr. Johnson does not own the Bullets. The team is not for sale. And while there is a downtown arena in the works, it is going to be built by Abe Pollin, owner of both the Bullets and the Capitals hockey team.

That does not give Mr. Johnson much of an angle since Mr. Pollin is also a very rich man and has said nothing about needing help to finance his $180 million arena.

But, then, nobody expected Mr. Johnson to become one of the most powerful figures in the black entertainment world when he was growing up as the ninth of 10 children in a working class, church-going family in Freeport, Ill.

Both his parents were factory workers, and from their example Mr. Johnson developed a healthy appetite for work. As a teen-ager and college student, he mowed lawns and weeded gardens; he erected tents and scrubbed toilets at the local fair; and he cleaned the assembly line floor at the local battery factory.

A streak of independence

But while he worked, he always harbored an entrepreneurial spirit and displayed a streak of independence that sometimes got him into trouble.

He was fired from his job at the battery factory because he did not see the logic of constantly cleaning the assembly line floor. He preferred to do it "in stages," although he made sure the floor was clean when his shift ended.

"The foreman did not like that and told me I had to leave the job that Friday," Mr. Johnson recalls. "I said 'no. Today is my last day.' The people in the factory were saying 'that boy thinks he's something because he's going to college. He'll need this factory one day.' "

Little did they know, Mr. Johnson had bigger dreams.

As a child, he wanted to be a fighter pilot, an idea he got from reading comic books. But his mother always saw him as a businessman, even after his paper route went belly up because Mr. Johnson did not like delivering newspapers through the harsh Illinois winter.

Later, he decided he wanted to be a diplomat -- a notion that still appeals to him.

"I always had a fascination with history," he says. "I think my interest in diplomacy grew from that."

Using a combination of government loan programs, he attended the University of Illinois, where he met his wife, Sheila, now a BET vice president. He went on to graduate school at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Upon graduation in 1972, he came to Washington, the place to be for an aspiring ambassador.

A diplomat-in-waiting?

He already possessed many of the traits of a good diplomat: He was handsome and elegant, engaging but persistent. Those attributes later would be integral to his business success.

Once here, Mr. Johnson worked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Washington Urban League, a D.C. city councilman and then Del. Walter Fauntroy, D.C.'s delegate to Congress.

He became a cable television lobbyist, a job that offered him the connections and know-how he needed to launch BET, the nation's only cable television network targeting black viewers.

Now, Mr. Johnson is building an entertainment empire poised to become what he calls black America's "pre-eminent" brand name.

Despite offering a mostly uninspiring mix of music videos, infomercials and discarded network sitcoms, the company became profitable within six years of its launch -- an impressive achievement by cable-TV standards. In the 1980s, Mr. Johnson also won the District's cable television franchise with the help of Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., for whom Mr. Johnson has been a strong political supporter.

In 1991, BET was offered for public sale, becoming the first black-controlled firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The initial stock sale rocketed Mr. Johnson's personal worth to the neighborhood of $100 million. It also gave BET cash to upgrade its production facilities and expand into other businesses.

BET is putting the finishing touches on a gleaming $26 million media campus that includes a new office building, a huge studio and an already-operating broadcast facility in Northeast Washington.

And while the BET cable network still accounts for 87 percent of the company's revenue, Mr. Johnson is diversifying. He recently launched BET Shop, a partnership with the Home Shopping Network to form a shop-at-home program targeting black consumers. He also kicked off Jazz Central, a 10-hour-a-week bloc of jazz concerts and videos. He hopes eventually to spin off both new ventures into separate cable stations.

BET also has bought a pay-per-view movie channel and is a partner in several deals to produce black-oriented films for cable, pay-per-view and home video markets. He controls both Emerge and YSB: Young Sisters and Brothers, magazines that target black audiences.

There also are plans for restaurants that would combine the identity and allure of the BET name, with the nuts-and-bolts expertise of an experienced food service company.

But key to Mr. Johnson's vision for his empire are a sports arena and basketball team -- elements he believes would add untold value to his media holdings.

It all fits: His team's games could air on his pay-per-view network. They could be analyzed on BET. And they could be promoted in the pages of his magazines, and even through music videos, with his star players grooving side-by-side with recording artists.

And when his NBA team was not hooping in the arena, there would be concerts, boxing matches all aired, analyzed, and, one way or another, sold through BET.

It started at a party

All this is quite remarkable for a guy who got into the cable-television business because of some party chatter in the mid-1970s.

"I was at a party and somebody said to me, 'You would make a good lobbyist for cable TV.' I said, 'What's cable?' " Mr. Johnson recalls with a laugh.

He found out soon enough. The job with Mr. Fauntroy had familiarized him with comings and goings on Capitol Hill. He left to become a lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association in 1976. That job put him in contact with the big-money players of cable television, an industry then brimming with heady predictions of unbroken profits far into the future.

It did not take someone with Mr. Johnson's business acumen long to see that the expanded channel capacity offered by cable created a need for programming targeted to specific audiences. And who better to target than African-Americans? Studies show that they watch more television and spend more of their dollars on consumer goods than any other ethnic group. Plus, they were doing this when most television shows were not geared toward them.

With that, Mr. Johnson was on his way.

Inspired by the success of Ebony and Jet magazines and the TV dance show "Soul Train," which he views as cultural touchstones linking a generation of blacks, Mr. Johnson began toying with the notion of a cable-TV station that could do the same in the video age.

The idea jelled while he shared a cab with a friend who had developed a plan for a cable-TV channel aimed at the elderly. The man gave a copy of the plan to Mr. Johnson, who revised it to fit his needs: Wherever he saw the word "elderly," Mr. Johnson substituted "black," giving him his BET blueprint.

"That really was the conceptualization of a business plan," Mr. Johnson says, relaxing in BET's sleek glass-walled executive offices in Georgetown. "Really, I saw this as an answer for how blacks could get their images on television."

The idea, coupled with Mr. Johnson's low-keyed but persistent salesmanship, convinced important people that BET would be a winner.

After he sold his wife on his idea, Mr. Johnson quit his lobbying job in 1979, got a $15,000 bank loan and went about the business of lining up investors for his new company. One of the first people he approached was John C. Malone, president of Denver-based Tele-Communications Inc., the largest cable-TV operator in the nation. Mr. Malone invested $500,000.

"I thought it was a good opportunity, and I also saw it as something that was needed," says Mr. Malone, who knew Mr. Johnson through his lobbying work. "I liked Bob. He was a nice guy and he had a good idea. I have never been disappointed."

There were some shaky early years. Flat earnings and confusion over the number of BET subscribers twice caused BET's stock price to fall so steeply that trading had to be suspended. Then, last year, BET's former chief financial officer pleaded guilty to embezzling $1.9 million from the company.

But BET turned its first profit in 1986 and has grown steadily more profitable since, an achievement that friends attribute to Mr. Johnson's business sense.

BET has made Mr. Johnson something of a mogul in the black entertainment world. When he goes to basketball games, players whisper in his ear about appearing in music videos. Major black stars appear on BET shows, sometimes for a fraction of the fee they can command elsewhere. Despite his wealth and connections and the glitz that surrounds his business, Mr. Johnson hardly cuts a flamboyant figure.

Instead, he has a muted style more reflective of being a married father of two than a high-flying entertainment executive.

"I think of him as a businessman more so than a TV mogul," said Tim Reid, an actor and producer and partner with BET in a venture to produce black-oriented feature films. "He has all the qualities one would need to run a growing company such as BET. He has achieved an awful lot in a quiet, unassuming manner."

Not a revolution

Certainly, BET is a money maker. But critics point out its programming often falls below even the low-brow standards of commercial TV.

"By any measure, the company has certainly been a success story," says Wayne Garnes, vice president of research who follows BET for LM Capital Securities, a brokerage firm. "But there is still another level BET is trying to get to in its desire to be an all-encompassing entertainment empire targeting the African-American community. There are a certain amount of expenditures that have to be made to get the quality of product necessary. And, so far, BET has been very reluctant to make that investment."

While BET produces and broadcasts some against-the-grain news and public-affairs shows and an occasional special, about 60 percent of its programming is music videos, which are provided free by record companies. Much of the remaining mix includes infomercials, those feature-length commercials that are a phenomenon of cable television, or network re-runs featuring black characters, including "Roc," Mr. Reid's "Frank's Place" and "Out All Night," starring Patti Labelle.

Mr. Johnson offers no apologies for BET's lineup. "We built a company that is worth $300 million on music videos," he says. "MTV built a company worth $1 billion on music videos. There is no sense in BET competing with the networks in producing sitcoms or soap operas."

His company's goal, he says, is to offer an array of black images unrivaled on TV -- even if it risks offering viewers more of a mediocre thing.

Clearly, Mr. Johnson sees himself as a businessman, not a maverick trying to revolutionize broadcasting. He says he wants BET to become a force that any advertiser that wants to sell to America's expanding black consumer market will have to deal with. If he doesn't do it, he says, someone else will.

"I don't know that Bob Johnson has changed the face of TV," says Mr. Reid. "But what [BET] offers is consistent programming aimed primarily at the African-American market. That is unique in itself."

Now, Mr. Johnson sees ownership of a professional sports team as his ticket to the next level of business -- a level achieved by the Ted Turners of the world, but reached by few firms, especially those owned by African-Americans.

That is why he continues to push for a stake in the Bullets -- or some other professional sports franchise, even if that dream appears for the moment to be eluding him.

"We're not in the game in terms of competing for the arena site," Mr. Johnson says. "But we are in the game in saying we are interested in investing. . . . We are in a position to bring a lot of assets and attributes to a professional sports team."

And vice-versa, he might add.

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