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BY Abu Mubarik, 11:23am January 13, 2023,

BET founder Robert Johnson says he made the most Black millionaires in US history. Here is how. 

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is an embodiment of black excellence. Although a notable philanthropist, serial entrepreneur, and investor through his holding company, RLJ, Johnson will always be remembered as the founder of the first black cable channel, Black Entertainment Television (BET).

According to Johnson, the idea to start BET was inspired by the founder of Ebony, John Johnson. At its peak, Ebony was the premier magazine profiling successful African-Americans from all walks of life. 

“He had his stories in print, it was nationally distributed, but through a magazine, nobody was doing it in video and certainly no one was doing it on a national scale to aggregate as many Black households because the technology didn’t exist.”

Johnson launched BET in the 1980s after he left the National Cable and Television Association NCTA where he was vice president of government relations. Before that, he served as the public affairs director for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and also worked as the director of communications for the Washington, D.C. office of the National Urban League.

Following the revolution of the satellite TV in the US, it gave channels the possibility of retaining a national audience. According to him, he met an elderly man who wanted to create a channel for the elderly. While lobbying the Senate Committee on Aging for the creation of the channel, he took a look at the brochure his partner created.

“I looked at it and he had all of these things: the elderly buy a certain kind of product, the elderly have a certain kind of income, the elderly have a certain set of needs, and the elderly are not appropriately projected on television,” Johnson said, according to Black Enterprise.

“So I asked him for it and when I got it, I changed everything to Black. Black people buy a certain kind of product, Black people have a certain kind of need and Black people are ignored on television. So I took that and I said I gotta start this thing called BET.”

When Johnson started BET, it only aired for two hours on Friday nights. It took five years to turn in profit from the first cable television network aimed at African-Americans. And the formula was pretty simple: to fill in the lacuna in the market.

“Along the way came music videos and MTV started playing videos but they wouldn’t play Black music videos, so I said there’s a chance to play Black music videos and that’s where we started and the thing about it that made BET such a success was the videos were free,” Johnson said. “So imagine a business where the cable operators pay you to carry a program, the record companies give you the content for free and the advertisers pay to speak to your audience.”

BET became the first Black-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991. To ensure the growth of BET, he created a sense of community ownership. He brought in Black employees and gave them equity.

In 2000, Viacom acquired BET for a reported $3 billion and through that; he was able to create millionaires via the equity he gave them in BET. He reportedly took home $1.8 billion in Viacom stock, making him the first Black American billionaire. He adds that the sale also created eight multimillionaires instantly.

“To me, that’s what you do as a founder, you bring your people in and give them a significant piece of the commitment to opportunity so that they feel that you have a commitment to their success as much as you have to your own success,” he said at the annual Black Men Xcel.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: January 13, 2023


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