Robert L “Bob” Johnson has a lot to say about his move beyond cable to the digital world, and his legacy as founder of Black Entertainment Television.
Johnson’s latest venture Urban Movie Channel (UMC), a digital, subscription-based service devoted to distributing feature films, comedy specials and documentaries for the African-American audience launched last year. While some may wonder why a streaming service targeting African-Americans in this age of Netflix is necessary, Johnson, 69, believes this niche audience is under served, and his critics are behind the times.
“I would say to those critics that they are living in the past. Their minds are in the past that you’re going to allow one channel or one site, Netflix, to say that they’re going to be all things to all people,” Johnson told TheWrap. “People who say something like that have their head in the sand and probably should stay there.”
UMC has been generating buzz since February, when it acquired the LGBT drama “Blackbird” starring Mo’Nique, Isaiah Washington and newcomer Julian Walker. The film, distributed by Johnson’s RLJ entertainment, made its limited theatrical debut last weekend in 13 theaters, earning $45,834 for a respectable $3,526 per screen average. It will be available on UMC this summer.
The streaming service is one of Johnson’s highest-profile media projects since he launched BET back in 1980. He started the cable channel with an initial $500,000 investment, most of which he borrowed from friends, including billionaire John Malone — then president and CEO of TCI. Johnson sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion in 2000.
While the cable network brought him massive success and earned him the moniker “America’s first black billionaire,” it also brought wide-spread criticism. Over the years, many people including Spike Lee, cartoonist Aaron McGruder and black scholar Dr. Boyce D. Watkins, complained that BET’s programming focused too heavily on entertainment and explicit music videos instead of news shows that would inform the black audience.
Of particular concern were videos from hip-hop artists featuring scantily clad women and lyrics invoking the words “bitches” and “hoes.” However, Johnson insists the criticism was unwarranted.
“BET was created to distribute entertainment content and the record companies made entertainment-related music videos,” he said. “What people were seeing was the expression of talented artists from A to Z, that wanted to speak to their audience.”
He added that there were filters in place and BET censored material it found particularly offensive. “We edited some videos that we thought were just too far out. And we’ll do the same at UMC.”
Johnson went on to complain that BET faced extra scrutiny because it was the only black-owned cable channel for far too long.
“Had there been four or five black urban channels like BET, then people would have said ‘I’m not gonna watch BET, I’m gonna watch black education television or black religious television or black cultural television,” he said.
As for criticism that BET didn’t offer enough informational programming, Johnson insists that’s simply not true.
“We did ‘BET News’ and ‘Lead Story’ and other programming aimed at young people.” And he takes pride in the fact that BET was one of the few channels to air the uncensored version of Michael Jackson’s controversial 1996 music video “They Don’t Care About Us” — which many in the Jewish community labeled anti-Semitic.
“The record company edited the video to take out the words ‘kike me.’ But we said ‘look, this is Michael’s expression. We’re gonna let Michael do his thing. If people don’t want to watch it, then go other places.’”
Johnson told TheWrap decisions like that helped give BET its edge. He concluded by saying he has no regrets.
“I will always be proud of every second of programming on BET.”