Only two years ago, Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson seemed something of a pariah in Hollywood.
His Washington-based cable network's reliance on music videos and other inexpensive shows drew widespread criticism from black producers who accused Johnson of squandering the resources of the nation's only black-owned cable channel. And Johnson seemed equally testy about Hollywood, saying, "I don't get excited sitting around with Hollywood types talking about programming."
But with the recent boom in black filmmaking and black artists' prominence on the nation's record charts, Johnson, 45, has been busy mending his fences in Tinseltown and converting his detractors.
He's launched a Los Angeles-based celebrity show, signed up former television actor/producer Tim Reid to produce TV dramas and teamed up with flamboyant pay-TV fight promoter Butch Lewis in a bid to cash in on the burgeoning pay-per-view TV market.
Johnson has also raised his profile battling MTV Networks--which has signed contracts to air some black artists exclusively and which may directly challenge BET's black music hegemony when it splits into three separately programmed music-video channels in mid-1993.
"Hollywood is important to us in terms of business relationships and in the creative sense," Johnson said. "I've never lost sight of that. Anybody in Hollywood knows they can pick up the phone and call me."
As for MTV, Johnson said, "We will not tolerate their use of monopoly power. This is the closest thing to a declaration of war that we've had with a competitor."
"Exclusivity is nothing new to the television industry," countered MTV spokeswoman Carol Robinson. "Bill Cosby is on NBC; one network gets the world series. We pay good money to get exclusivity and that money is used to fuel video production."
Robinson added that it was "premature" to speculate whether MTV will directly compete with BET's music programming in 1993 because "no one knows what the music climate will be like then."
Johnson, however, is wasting no time covering his bets in Hollywood. Black Entertainment Television has always been a player in the cable and music industries, and now Johnson is trying to gain the same prominence in film and television production and in the burgeoning pay-TV field. His new interests could be gleaned at a glittery party following his first pay-per-view effort--a successful James Brown concert that aired from Los Angeles in June.
Johnson mingled with an audience that included actor Denzel Washington, pop singers Wilson Phillips, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Time Warner executives. And in a departure from his previous professed disinterest, he discussed programming and film projects with "New Jack City" director Mario Van Peebles and others, according to Reginald Hudlin, who directed the hit movie "House Party" and was among those seated with Johnson.
The positive reaction to the event, which reached the third largest music audience in pay-per-view history, seemed to have a big impact on Johnson, according to promoter Butch Lewis, who was BET's partner in the pay-per-view broadcast.
"We took James Brown, whose career seemed finished, and made him a national event; now he's hotter than ever," Lewis boasted. "I saw a change in Bob's attitude after that. . . . He seems more eager to move ahead. Bob and I intend to have a big impact on the music and entertainment industry."
"BET has really proven effective both as a place to advertise black film and as an outlet for artists' works," said director Hudlin. With cable expanding into more urban areas where African-Americans are concentrated, he added, "I don't see any reason why (BET) can't become one of the most popular and successful cable networks."
Founded in 1980 with $15,000 of Johnson's money and a $500,000 investment from cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., BET has become a full-fledged, 24-hour cable network, with a $10-million studio in Washington and estimated annual revenue of $27.6 million in 1990, according to Paul Kagan Associates, a media research firm in Carmel.
Although some critics have called BET's television lineup of music videos, college sports, movies, news and talk shows uninspired, the network saw its prime-time ratings increase 15% to 0.6 in the first quarter of 1991, a period when ratings for rival MTV and VH-1 declined 9% and 13%, respectively, according to Kagan.
The ratings improvement hasn't yet paid off for BET's three major backers--Tele-Communications, Great American Broadcasting Co. and Time Warner Inc.'s pay cable unit, Home Box Office, which together have $10 million invested in the network. But with 20 films by black directors scheduled to be released this year and with black artists behind 10 of the top 20 albums on a recent Billboard magazine pop chart, Johnson thinks BET can financially benefit from the new wave of black creativity sweeping Hollywood.