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BET at 25: A look back and forward

October 31, 2005|Greg Braxton

When Black Entertainment Television, the first black-owned cable network, went on the air in 1980, its initial series were a gospel show and a video music program with a set so flimsy that the host's podium once collapsed on air.

Twenty-five years later, "The Bobby Jones Gospel Show" is still on the air. But almost everything else has changed at BET, which has evolved into a significant cable force, featuring news shows, comedy series, reality programs, gala awards ceremonies and more.

During that time, BET founder and chairman Robert L. Johnson has won mountains of praise as a savvy business visionary. But the network also has been criticized by many inside and outside the television industry who feel that it has fallen far short of its potential to provide serious and in-depth entertainment by and for blacks. They have complained that BET has focused too much on hip-hop music videos with scantily clad women and cocky "gangsta" rappers.

Johnson has always brushed aside those criticisms, and the network will celebrate its triumphs this week with "25 Strong: The BET Silver Anniversary Celebration," a two-hour special airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday featuring historic clips and vintage performances.

The special will also spotlight new musical performances by Alicia Keys, R. Kelly, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams and Mary J. Blige, among others.

"In the beginning, folks were thinking that this network wouldn't last 25 months, much less 25 years," said Donnie Simpson, BET's first "video jockey." "It was like public access. But now we have major productions that would have been unheard of in the past."

The special also serves as a turning point for BET. One segment is a salute to Johnson, who is retiring to concentrate on other ventures, including his majority ownership of the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team. He has named BET president and chief operating officer Debra L. Lee as his successor, and Lee appointed filmmaker Reginald Hudlin as president of entertainment programming.

Hudlin says he has already been aggressively developing programs that will take BET to the next level as a diverse venue for African American-themed entertainment.

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