Network Man Hits Nothing but Net
By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, December 19, 2002; Page D01
This isn't Bob Johnson's first expansion project. In fact, I'm willing to bet the first one was more difficult, more stressful and fraught with more risk than owning a new franchise in an established, profitable, internationally acclaimed sports league. A little more than 20 years ago, with then-wife Sheila teaching music at Sidwell Friends, Johnson took out a $40,000 second mortgage on their house in Northwest Washington to start a television network.
Expansion basketball teams have been popping up with some regularity since the 1960s. But while plenty of black businessmen undoubtedly fantasized about starting a network that catered to the specific interests of black folks, Johnson risked everything he and his wife had. And he pulled it off.
He started Black Entertainment Television, which later grew to include a movie channel and a jazz channel. The hip-hop culture wouldn't exist to nearly the degree it does now without BET beaming it to every corner of America and forcing MTV to creatively react with its own hip-hop programming explosion.
Talk about an up-by-the-bootstrap story. Starting with nothing, Johnson built an entertainment empire through sound business acumen and practices and aggressive negotiations. He made his share of enemies along the way. He was, and is, relentless in business and probably had to be for the simple reason that he was a small, independent operator in a ruthless and competitive marketplace, where television and entertainment merged. Johnson's success with BET is not unlike Ted Turner's success with CNN and TBS. And the thing about self-made men is that you don't just lose all that passion and stick-to-itiveness. Now, Johnson wants to pour himself into a basketball franchise, as well as continuing his efforts to get a major league baseball team for Washington.
Johnson once said that every time he had a personal audience with NBA Commissioner David Stern, he would ask him, "David, when do I get a chance to buy a franchise?"
Before this goes any further, let me declare a conflict of interest and feelings. Bob Johnson gave me my start in television, at BET in the mid-1980s when the studio was tiny and still located in Alexandria. Long before the proliferation of sportswriters talking on national TV, Johnson put host Charlie Neal at a sports roundtable every Saturday afternoon for years and it included, on a rotating basis, James Brown, Bryan Burwell, David Aldridge, Ralph Wiley, Bill Rhoden, Glenn Harris, Roy Johnson and me. Bob Johnson paid us, showcased us, and we all went onto bigger paychecks and greater visibility. Doubtful any of us can repay him that debt of gratitude.
To look at BET now makes me angry or depressed. The network recently announced it is eliminating most of its news division, including a first-rate nightly public affairs show hosted by Ed Gordon and its Sunday night show "Lead Story" and, incredibly, "Teen Summit," which over the years has saved countless young lives. Viacom, which bought BET from Johnson a couple of years ago, didn't make these cuts. "This was a decision Bob Johnson and I made," Debra Lee, the network's president and CEO, told The Washington Post this week, clearing up the matter of who is responsible.
It's a heinous decision. News, apparently, costs too much. So BET is now the network of platinum-grilled rappers, provocatively dressed women and all-night infomercials, but not news or pertinent information. And to think we debate the cultural obligation of 27-year-old Tiger Woods. It's sickening to think of all the fabulously talented producers, directors, reporters, technicians and creative folks Johnson and Lee have let go through these kinds of moves -- and of the void for discussions of worthy issues to and for people of color, or anybody interested, in joining in.
So I'm conflicted because I'm angry most days over what BET is likely to become, but old enough to understand the fight Johnson had to wage to get the network running, keep it running and make it successful enough that he would change the face of television and at the same time make himself a billionaire. Johnson, to the best of our knowledge, is the only black billionaire in this country, which means he beat more odds than just about anybody you can shake a stick at.
In an unfortunate remark a few days ago, M.L. Carr, who with Larry Bird was fronting the competing group to be selected by the NBA, said "there is no affirmative action for billionaires." Johnson, who could, if he so chooses, bring aboard local investors in Charlotte, is at present the one voice running the new franchise. The Bird-Carr group was going to have more than a dozen investors, and still needed more money.
The NBA never did like the chaotic way seven people ran the New Jersey Nets. Plainly put, Johnson by himself had more money, apparently a lot more, than the Bird-Carr group. When asked at the introductory news conference in New York yesterday how he would finance the $300 million deal, Johnson looked straight at the questioner and said, "My marketable securities in Viacom stock." Money, not race, ruled the day. Choosing the other group, just because Bird is more visible and Carr played at Guilford College (in North Carolina) and ran the WNBA franchise this past season, would have been, you could make the case, a form of affirmative action. Johnson has roughly the same published net worth as the Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban.
That's not to say Johnson's color goes unnoticed today. There are a handful of black men in this country -- including Eddie Gardner (the founder of Soft Sheen Products), who owns a piece of the Chicago Bulls; South Floridian Willie Gary; and Johnson -- who, as Johnson said, all "stand on the shoulders of men like Jackie Robinson."
Johnson's owning the Charlotte franchise is going to immediately impact the way black-owned enterprises and black investors go about their business, personal and commercial. It will probably open the eyes of black athletes, though a little more slowly. The imminently qualified Johnson associate Ed Tapscott (a good friend) should have a team to run, finally. In fact, if Abe Pollin really wants Michael Jordan to stay here and run the franchise, and not move back to his home state of North Carolina, he might want to consider ways to lock up Jordan before Johnson gets a hold of him.
Magic Johnson, who has been every bit the success off the court as he was on, told Bloomberg News, "For the NBA to beat the NFL and [Major League] Baseball [in having a black majority owner], it says a lot about the owners and our great commissioner, David Stern."
It also says a lot about a man, Bob Johnson, who, starting from scratch, was able to make things go his way to a degree that surely leaves others with more resources quite jealous.