On this day in comedy on January 25, 1980, Black Entertainment Television (BET) was launched
Following the model of urban radio and print media, Bob Johnson, a former DC cable lobbyist, founded BET using his connections in the fledgling cable and satellite television industry. After consulting with an investor looking to target the elderly for a niche station, Johnson (with permission) altered and used that pitch to begin the first black targeted network. He secured funding ($500,000) from entrepreneur friendly media executive, John Malone and that, along with a $15,000 loan got Johnson’s dream off the ground. It was headquartered in Washington, DC.
The initial programming for BET consisted of music videos, direct-to-video movies, reruns of old sitcoms and a smattering of theatrical films. It was only on for two hours per week as part of Nickelodeon and wouldn’t be its own fully operational station until July 1, 1983, but it made inroads right away and built its target audience. By 1988 there was BET News with anchorman, Ed Gordon and BET Tonight, a talk show hosted by Tavis Smiley (and later by Gordon) in 1996. It was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991 (the first black-owned company to ever do so) and in its heyday BET was known for Comic View (the stand-up comedy showcase hosted alternately by D. L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, Sommore, Don DC Curry, Rickey Smiley, J. Anthony Brown, Sherryl Underwood and others), Video Soul with Donnie Simpson, Video Vibrations, Teen Summit, Screen Scene, Lead Story, Softones, Unreal/Planet Groove/Caribbean Rhythms and Jam Zone/Cita’s World.
In the late ‘90s BET went digital and expanded its brand with BET Jazz (targeting that specific market) and later partnering with John Malone to launch BET / Starz (later known as Black Starz and Starz in Black). The station added hit show 106 & Park in 2000.
In 2001 Johnson sold off his holdings to Viacom for $3 billion. It instantly lost its status as a black-owned company even though Johnson stayed on as president and CEO until 2005 when he stepped down and turned over his duties and titles to his long standing vice-president, Debra Lee. In 2007 the network launched BET Hip Hop, BET Gospel and slated a slew of reality shows. Reginald Hudlin, who had been the president in charge of entertainment left in 2008 and was replaced by Stephen Hill; the executive VP of music programming and talent.
BETs official slogan “We Got You” took on a negative connotation to some. Over its run, BET has experienced its share (if not more) of criticism for its programming. Celebrities and black organizations came out against the way women were portrayed in rap videos and black stereotypes in general. This prompted the station to launch BET Uncut from 2001 to 2006 so they could display this suggestive themes with a warning to the target audience of young adults over the age of 17 (without any way to monitor such a requirement). Most of these videos came from lesser known artists with poor production quality. However, they never did come up with an off-shot to combat the stereotypes.
Despite its bumpy history, BET became more than just a basic cable station for black people. It became an institution and brand for African-Americans (regardless of who owned it at the time). In 1993 it started broadcasting in the United Kingdom. In 1995 the BET Walk of Fame Awards was established. In 1997 BET became available in Canada. The BET Awards began in 2001 to celebrate black accomplishments in the acting, music, sports and other forms of entertainment. In 2004 proceeds were shared between the United Negro College Fund and the BET Foundation and in 2008 The BET Honors was established to pay tribute to the achievements of black luminaries and soon afterwards the station was licensed to be broadcast in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and is an associate member of the Caribbean Cable Cooperative.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: