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BET on the Past and Future of a Dream

Television * Brushing aside criticism, the CEO marks the cable network's 20th year and has plans for TV and theatrical movies.


It's BET's party. And Robert L. Johnson, the founder and chairman of Black Entertainment Network, can ignore charges of exploitation, missed opportunities, lowbrow programming and stereotyping if he wants to.

"Those things that some people say about BET aren't even a blemish," said Johnson as he prepared this week for the network's 20th anniversary celebration. "Anything that has been around for 20 years and has been successful will be criticized. What they say pales in comparison to what's on the horizon for BET, what's on the drawing board. Those negative things haven't even reached the level of being a nuisance."

Occupying Johnson's agenda for the past several days is "The BET 20th Anniversary Celebration," tonight's gala tribute to BET, the nation's only black-owned cable network, which started two decades ago as a minor late-night Washington cable station. Jamie Foxx will host a live telecast of the event beginning at 5 p.m. from Bally's Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The show will feature a who's who of top African American celebrities.

Denzel Washington, James Brown, Diana Ross, Toni Braxton, Bill Cosby, Mariah Carey, LL Cool J, Luther Vandross, Dr. Dre, Kirk Franklin and Mary J. Blige are among the artists scheduled to appear or perform during the show. The gala also will feature salutes to Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Stevie Wonder.

The tribute comes amid continuing criticism against BET from industry insiders and others who charge that the network has fallen far short from its potential to be truly groundbreaking and to present meaningful and insightful entertainment by and for blacks. Much of the network's programming comes from hip-hop music videos featuring scantily clad women and cocky gangsta rappers.

But, for tonight, those issues will be set aside. While the emphasis of the special will be on glamour and star power, Johnson said it was important to understand the weight of this moment.

"To me, the significance of this is showing how BET brought African American creativity and business management together for the last 20 years," Johnson said. "We've been able to tap into the creativity of the recording industry. We've been able to turn that connection into business opportunities that benefit both of us. I feel a sense of pride for all of the parties that have had a part of this development. It's not just one person, it's this mosaic of interests that have come together."


Robert Sachs, president and CEO of the National Cable Television Assn., said BET's track record from such modest beginnings in the cable industry is truly noteworthy. "At the time BET started, I think few would have predicted that it would have evolved into the powerhouse that it's become. Bob Johnson created a number of jobs, and filled a void that existed from the beginning of television. He is truly a visionary."

Joe Lawson, president of the National Assn. of Minorities in Cable, said: "BET has developed and exposed a pool of talent that has grown. It's also a good way for the industry people who are not of color to see what black people can control and create."

The lineup of A-list talent participating in the special is also an indication of the place BET holds in the black creative community. "They know what our network has meant in the last 20 years," Johnson said.

The celebration comes as Johnson continues his attempts to take BET to a new level, accelerating production of a series of made-for-TV movies while making plans to produce two theatrical films. He wants to make the network more prominent in the Internet universe, and he also intends to expand BET's news presence.

Still, obstacles remain.

Criticism of BET intensified last year when several comedians, including Jay Leno and Tim Allen, blasted the network's stand-up comedy show, "Comic View," in an open letter printed in entertainment industry trade papers. Comedians on the show were receiving only $150 for an appearance, and no residual payment when the show was rerun. Other shows pay appearance fees and residuals to comedians, as well as travel and lodging expenses.

The protest was part of an ongoing effort by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists against BET. Cedric the Entertainer, who was to host the new "Live From L.A." talk show launched by the network last year, quit over the protest.

The frugality of Johnson and the network has long been a sore spot within black creative circles. Although the slate of romantic-themed television movies introduced late last year have worked for BET, their budgets remain almost prohibitively low, prompting some complaints from stars and other talent. The network has not focused on developing original series, saying it is not cost-effective to produce comedic and dramatic series that may prove difficult to exploit after their initial run on BET.

Johnson said future original series development is not out of the question, but added: "If a series costs $800,000 an episode, and there's no back-end [revenue], that's tough to do. We can't do it until we find a way to get those costs down."

Of the other controversies, Johnson, who started the network with a $15,000 personal bank loan and a $500,000 investment from cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., said, "There will always be challenges." He said he prefers to focus on the future of BET.

Johnson said he is looking forward to the party, but can't wait to get back to work.

"After the last balloon is popped, we'll be looking at the changing telecommunications industry," he said. "We want to get into the digital revolution. We want BET to be as prominent on the Internet as it is in cable."

* "The BET 20th Anniversary Celebration" can be seen tonight at 5 on BET.

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