The Final Call Online Edition


WEB POSTED 11-14-2000


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BET Holdings
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BET sold to Viacom
Sale of Black cable channel sends shock waves through Black media community

WASHINGTONóThe Black community held its breath, crossed its fingers and sent up prayers when word first went out that BET (Black Entertainment Television) might be sold. But after a week of rumor and speculation their fears were realized Nov. 3 when Viacom, Inc., the third largest media company in the world, bought Black Americaís premiere media company, BET Holdings, Inc., for an estimated $3 billion.

While the business community is lauding the purchase as a "landmark event" many Blacks see very little to cheer about. For them, the BET sale means that a white company with mega money can still buy whatever it wants, especially if it belongs to a Black man.

"I have coveted BET and Bob Johnson, BETís chief executive, for at least a year and a half," said Sumner Redstone, chief executive of Viacom, Inc., on a CNBC financial news program. "Itís been a year-and-a-half since I went to see John Malone (Liberty Media Group) to tell him I wanted BET. Itís a great channel and itís very hard to acquire a cable channel today."

Yes, it is very hard to acquire a cable channel. Thatís why for the past 20 years BET has been the only game in town for Blacks. Not because others didnít want to play and join the big leagues, but because of that great difficulty factor that Mr. Redstone spoke about.

Cathy Hughes, founder of Radio One, the largest Black radio company in America told the Washington Post, "it is a great day for Bob Johnson, but it is a significant loss for African American ownership."

The great day for Mr. Johnson catapults him to billionaire status with $1.6 billion as a result of his 63 percent ownership of BET Holdings. John Malone controls Liberty Media Group, which owns 35 percent of BET and Debra Lee, president of BET, owns two percent.

According to Mr. Johnson, "Combining the assets of BET with the global resources and brands of Viacom will create a platform that is even stronger and better positioned to deliver the wants and needs of BETís core audience."

Viacom is in a position to avail BET of its endless resources of series, movies and feature films. BET could very well be another channel for programs from Viacomís other acquisitions such as CBS, UPN, Showtime, TNN and TV Land.

Further, this deal will greatly expand the viewers of BET, which is currently in 60 million homes. Also, BET has received plenty of criticism for its programming choices ranging from sitcom reruns to infomercials to a parade of music videos.

"Weíve lost control of a powerful institution with a lot of potential. Bob Johnson, who used to be an owner, is now an employee who can be told to hit the door. Bob Johnson, who used to be the decision maker, can now be told by someone else how to run BET," said Yemi Toure, editor of the HYPE website that monitors Black images in media.

Mr. Toure told The Final Call, "Heís not running the show anymore. He wonít be making decisions like he did when he owned BET."

Many in the Black community echo that sentiment. George Curry, president of the American Society of Magazine Editors and former editor-in-chief of BETís defunct Emerge magazine, said, "You can have all the well meaning people at Viacom that you can collect, yet they do not and cannot have what is a unique African American perspective. ... BET as we know it is dead."

That may be the exact point for Viacom. They saw the potential BET has as a fast growing, highly successful company and wanted to add it to its already fast growing, highly successful conglomerate that also includes Country Music Television, VH1, and Infinity Broadcasting radio stations.

"As good as BETís doing, we think our resources can improve distribution. Theyíve done a good job with programming, but weíre programmers and we think we can improve that, too. Advertisers pay African American media about 50 percent less than what they pay other media. Thatís not right and we intend to change that. Itís a coup for us to pull this deal off," said Mr. Redstone.

This purchase gives Viacom the long sought after access into one the fastest growing media markets in the country. But Viacomís purchase adds to the ever shrinking number of Black media outlets that are being gobbled up, aligned with, merged onto and ventured along with larger white media giants.

But thatís not how Mr. Johnson sees this. "It provides a beacon for other African American companies to pursue these relationships. Essence has formed a 50/50 joint ownership with Time Warner. We think the relationship between Viacom and BET is a plus for our shareholders, a plus for our African American employees and a plus for the African American community."

Mr. Johnson, when the deal takes place, becomes one of those Black employees. "I signed, along with Debra, a five year contract and we are prepared to stay as long as (Viacom President Mel Karmazin and Viacom Chief Executive Sumner Redstone) would like us to stay. Obviously, there are other opportunities that I have before me.

"You all know about the airline, but thatís a business that Iíll find creative talent in that field to run it. Debra and I are totally committed to working with Viacom to continue to grow this asset," he said.

[Mr. Johnson has plans to start DC Air, a regional airline based in Washington, with purchases from US Airways Group Inc. and UAL group as part of their proposed merger. This deal is pending approval by the Justice Department.

So, what about the other BET employees?

"If I was working at BET Iíd be scared to death," said Mr. Toure. "Viacom has a director of market and advertising, so does BET. They donít need both. Who do you think will have to leave? Of course, the one at BET. We donít think about the little people at the bottom when mergers like this happen," he said. Viacom said there are no plans for layoffs.

Yet, Mr. Johnson is undaunted by responses such as the poll by which stated that 52 percent of their members saw the sale of BET as "another Black company sells out."

In Mr. Johnsonís circles the response is entirely different. He consulted with Rev. Jesse Jackson, who explained, "This isnít selling out, itís selling up. This goes beyond the radar screen of historical Black business ownership. This is a major league blockbuster move."

"The Black community is very proud and excited about what we built and about us combining with Viacom to help better serve the Black community," added Mr. Johnson.

Well, $3 billion is something to be proud of. According to Ms. Hughes, it is "mind boggling" to think that a Black company could be worth so much and actually be sold for that amount. "I am real happy for Bob and Iím happy for Black commerce," she said.

But ..."It changes the identity and changes perspective," she added.

"Itís a sad day in Black media," said Bob Slade, news director for New Yorkís very popular WKRS-FM radio. "This is typical of what happens with Black businesses. We build them up and then we canít keep them. The future of BET is in question. We criticized what they were doing and now Viacom is going to change everything.

"They will come in and change the format. BET will become the Black VH1. Intellectual dialogue will be missing. Thatís not what Viacom is about," he said.

Time will tell exactly what Viacom is about where BET is concerned. In addition to the BET cable channel, Viacom is acquiring two other cable channelsóBET on Jazz and BET International, which is distributed overseas. It will also get the BET publishing arm which produces Arabesque Books and a website,

The purchase does not include the sale of BETís movie channel BET Movies/Starz, the magazine division and BETís four restaurants.

Black-owned BET, once the only game in town, by the end of the year will be going, going, gone. This makes way for the new and soon to be only kid on the block of Black cable channels, Quincy Jonesí New Urban Entertainment (NUE) scheduled to begin broadcasting early 2001.



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