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
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
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
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
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
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
[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
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
Blackplanet.com. 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
"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
"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, BET.com.
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.