I remember the *good* ole days of BET when Robert L. Johnson was running it; heavy on the music videos, reruns of popular black sitcoms, a couple of news programs, and a youth-targeted talk-show in “Teen Summit.” Johnson also founded the network in 1980, on a $15,000 loan, and a $500,000 outside investment, before selling it to Viacom for a tidy sum that would make him one of the few black billionaires in the entire world at the time.
There were efforts to broaden the network’s content library and reach, like the creation of BET on Jazz (later known as BET Jazz and BET J), created originally to showcase jazz music-related programming; and the joint venture with Starz that would launch a premium cable TV channel featuring black movies, initially called BET Movies: Starz, and later renamed Black Starz after BET dropped out of the venture following its purchase by Viacom (it would eventually be known as Starz in Black).
But the original BET network was often on the receiving end of criticism from within the black community, and much of it publicly, challenging the network to, essentially, improve, and do away with the kind of programming that *justified* stereotypes held about African Americans, negatively influencing how young black Americans saw themselves.
The criticism continued even when then BET vice president Debra L. Lee took over as CEO in 2005, and launched a few new original series, although unscripted, in “Baldwin Hills” and “Hell Date.”
In a 2010 interview, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson said that she herself was “ashamed” of what the network had become. “I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids that they don’t watch it When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television. 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.”
And she wasn’t alone! By this time, however, Robert L. Johnson had long walked away, a very rich man! But, one could argue that he earned it. He launched the network in 1980, likely with visions of something far more reputable than what it eventually became under his tenure, and after about 20 years, he sold it for $3 billion, and moved on to other ventures, as the network continues to find itself still today, seemingly still searching for an identity; although, in considering recent moves in terms of programming (what’s been added and subtracted), one could argue that the network wants to draw a more adult, discerning audience. I’m looking forward to seeing what BET looks like in another 5 to 10 years.
In the meantime… I’m not sure it’s widely known that founder of the network, Robert L. Johnson, is currently operating another media company called RLJ Entertainment – a digital media company that owns popular OTT branded channels, Acorn TV (British TV) and UMC (Urban Movie Channel), which have rapidly grown since launch through development, acquisition, and distribution of exclusive rights to a large library of films and TV series. RLJE’s titles are also distributed in multiple formats including broadcast and pay television, theatrical and non-theatrical, DVD, Blu-ray, and a variety of digital distribution models (including EST, VOD, SVOD and AVOD) in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Additionally, through Acorn Media Enterprises, its UK development arm, RLJE owns 64% of Agatha Christie Limited, which is maybe its most intriguing property. So Johnson’s RLJE will have some income participation from any Agatha Christie film or TV adaptation, like the upcoming star-studded “Murder on the Orient Express” movie that’s slated to open later this year.
And Johnson, Chairman of RLJ Entertainment, continues to place his company in strategically smart positions to help ensure that it has a future and continues to grow. Last fall, RLJE formed a partnership with AMC Networks, the company behind several of the most recognized brands and shows in entertainment, including AMC, BBC AMERICA, WE tv (a leading network for African American audiences), SundanceTV, AMC Networks International, IFC, and IFC Films.
As part of the agreement, AMC Networks was to provide support and investment that will accelerate the distribution and development of diverse content and independent films from RLJ Entertainment across multiple platforms, including its direct-to-consumer streaming video-on-demand channels: Acorn TV and UMC, which is quickly becoming a key destination for African American viewers, with a rapidly growing fan base seeking diversity of creative voices.
By aligning Acorn TV and UMC with AMC Networks and its channels and film business – most notably BBC AMERICA, WE tv and IFC Films, which serve similar audiences — Acorn TV and UMC have the potential to cross-promote, develop and distribute content ultimately reaching even more viewers.
This week, both RLJE and AMC announced a broadening of their strategic partnership in order to accelerate RLJE’s content investments and other initiatives for Acorn TV and UMC (Urban Movie Channel). Essentially, AMC is expanding its investment in RLJE – funds that RLJE will then use to acquire even more new content, or maybe even create content of its own.
Per the press statement, Johnson says RLJE will dramatically increase its content investment over the next five years with this broadening of its partnership with AMC Networks.
“AMC Networks has proven a stellar partner and collaborator in RLJ Entertainment’s drive to more firmly establish Acorn TV and UMC as must-have destinations and impactful brands, and we thank AMC Networks President & CEO Josh Sapan and AMC Networks for their increased support,” said Johnson. “I believe in RLJE’s ability and opportunity to accelerate digital channel market penetration and steepen our overall growth trajectory, and I am demonstrating my support by participating through pure common equity.”
Miguel Penella, Chief Executive Officer of RLJ Entertainment, stated, “With OTT adoption gaining increased acceptance amongst consumers, we see a unique window of opportunity to take advantage of this trend. This financing reallocates significant levels of cash and limits the Company’s level of financial leverage while increasing shareholders equity. We will use these additional resources to intensify our planned investments in original, exclusive and compelling content to expand Acorn TV and UMC programming, in marketing to support awareness and subscription, and in broadening our Digital Channels’ domestic and international distribution. Accelerating our Digital Channel growth should in turn drive faster emergence of our higher-margin business model. Our partnership with AMC Networks has not only been financially beneficial but also extremely productive in terms of our strategic collaboration on programming opportunities.”
RLJ Entertainment is a publicly trader company by the way, with a market valuation of $16.5 million, which certainly isn’t much, making it a relatively cheap and easy take-over target. But first a buyer has to see value in the company, and obviously Johnson will have to want to sell it. The original agreement between AMC and RLJE included a mention that AMC could take a higher ownership percentage of RLJE if it wanted to down the road, so there’s always a chance that Johnson may eventually unload the company entirely, once he’s built up its value.
All this to say, for those who’ve been wondering and have asked what Robert L. Johnson has been up to since selling BET, he’s a businessman. He’s still very much around and seemingly thriving, and in the very same industry he initially seemed to exit when he sold BET.