Apr 30, 2010


Black Entertainment Television, which Sheila Crump Johnson and her husband Bob started three decades ago with $15,000 in seed money and a $500,000 investment from media mogul John Malone, made her one of wealthiest women in America.

When Viacom bought them out in 2000, Sheila and Bob pocketed $1.3 billion—making them, pre-Oprah, the nation's first African-American billionaires.

So today she must be extremely proud of her baby, right?

"Don't even get me started," says the 60-year-old Johnson, who has since divorced and remarried (charmingly enough, to the Virginia circuit court judge who presided over her divorce). "I don't watch it. I suggest to my kids [a twentysomething daughter and a college-age son] that they don't watch it… I'm ashamed of it, if you want to know the truth."

Johnson—who was at the Tribeca Film Festival this week for the premiere of The Other City, a searing, but ultimately hopeful documentary she produced about the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C.—says BET is making matters worse, and potentially contributing to the spread of AIDS, by promoting promiscuous, unprotected sex in raunchy late-night rap videos.

It wasn't always that way. "When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television," Johnson tells me. "We had public affairs programming. We had news… I had a show called Teen Summit, we had a large variety of programming, but the problem is that then the video revolution started up… And then something started happening, and I didn't like it at all. And I remember during those days we would sit up and watch these videos and decide which ones were going on and which ones were not. We got a lot of backlash from recording artists…and we had to start showing them. I didn't like the way women were being portrayed in these videos."

Johnson says she no longer has any connection with BET. "I just really wish—and not just BET but a lot of television programming—that they would stop lowering the bar so far just so they can get eyeballs to the screen," she says. "I know they think that's what's going to keep programming on the air; that's what's going to sell advertising. But there has got to be some responsibility. Somebody has got to take this over. Because with all the studies that are out there, this is contributing to an atmosphere of free sex, 'I don't have to protect myself anymore.'"

Now if the co-founder of BET doesn't want her children watching the channel, why are you letting your children watch it?  I agree with her.  I remember a time when BET was the best thing going on television.  Video Soul, Teen Summit, Midnight Love, BET News, Caribbean Rhythms, Video LP, just to name a few, kept me tuned in as a kid.  But who are we kidding, just as much as Ms. Johnson wants to slam the network she was also apart of its demise.  Soon as she and Bob sold the network to Viacom they had to know what was going to happen.  So the fact that she is feigning disappointment is a little disingenuous of her.  She knows just like everyone else that for corporate giants like Viacom that the bottom line is the 'bottom line.'  These companies don't care about content as long as it is making them and Sumner Redstone money. 

1 comment:

  1. I think there is a bit of revisionist history occurring.

    BET -- even in the early days -- was all about videos. Granted the videos were tamer but the music industry itself was relatively tame then compared to today.

    Sure, there was a feeble attempt at public affairs programming in the early days but it was not very robust or compelling. (Anyone remember Bev??)

    I don't think BET lived up to its true potential then OR today.

    This is quite sad in today's climate considering that the channel now has some deep pockets and the resources of Viacom.

    And yet, the channel's executives seem content with mediocre, third-rate content.

    Such a shame.