Robert L. Johnson

Johnson Robert L 1946 676
Photo by: lunamarina

Chief executive officer, Black Entertainment Television

Nationality: American.

Born: April 8, 1946, in Hickory, Mississippi.

Education: University of Illinois, BA, 1968; Princeton University, MPA, 1972.

Family: Son of Archie (timber seller) and Edna (teacher) Johnson; married Sheila Crump; children: two.

Career: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, public affairs officer; National Urban League, Washington office, director of communication; Sterling Tucker, press aide; Walter E. Fauntroy, 1973, press secretary; National Cable Television Association, 1976, vice president for governmental relations; Black Entertainment Television, 1980–, chief executive officer; Charlotte Bobcats, 2002–, owner.

Awards: Image Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1982; Trumpet Award, Turner Broadcasting, 1993; President's Award, National Cable Television Association, 1982; Pioneering Award, Capital Press Club, 1984; Business of the Year Award, Washington, D.C., Chamber of Commerce, 1985; Executive Leadership Council Award, 1992; Broadcasting & Cable , Hall of Fame Award, 1997; 20/20 Vision Award, Cablevision magazine.

Address: BET Holdings, 1232 31st Street NW, Washington, DC 20007;

■ Robert L. Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), the first U.S. television network aimed at African American audiences. Starting in 1979 with a $15,000 loan, Johnson turned BET into one of the richest franchises in the cable industry. BET was the first company controlled by African Americans to sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange, and Johnson was the first African American majority owner of a sports franchise.

Robert L. Johnson. AP/Wide World Photos.
Robert L. Johnson.
AP/Wide World Photos


Johnson grew up in Freeport, Illinois, the ninth of 10 chil dren. His entrepreneurial spirit was honed when he was a child. At the age of 12, Johnson began a job delivering the Rockford Morning Star . He did not like getting up early. In aninterview with Erik Spanberg that appeared in The Business Journal Johnson said, "I realized if I want to make some money, I'd better work for myself" (March 28, 2003). Graduating from high school with honors in history, Johnson attended the University of Illinois on an academic scholarship. After earning his bachelor's degree Johnson enrolled at Princeton University to study toward his goal of becoming a U.S. ambassador. In response to an effort to attract minority students to careers in international relations, Johnson attended the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs with financial support from the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Foreign Service. He was graduated sixth in his class.

After completing his studies at Princeton, Johnson worked primarily in the field of communication media. He had jobs as a public affairs officer for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, director of communications for the Washington, D.C., office of the National Urban League, press aide to Sterling Tucker, the Washington, D.C., councilman, and press secretary to Walter E. Fauntroy, the congressional delegate from the District of Columbia.

In 1976 Johnson was named vice president of governmental relations for the National Cable Television Association, a trade organization that represents cable television companies. As a lobbyist Johnson escorted an aspiring cable entrepreneur, Ken Silverman, to the office of Claude Pepper, the congressman from Florida, who was an advocate for senior citizens. Silverman wanted Pepper's support for his idea of starting a cable channel for older Americans. Johnson realized this concept would work well for African Americans, an underserved market in communication and entertainment media. The programming would focus on African American entertainment, cultural themes, and lifestyles. Johnson approached John Malone, a board member of NCTA and the head of TCI, a cable operator, to invest in his idea. Malone agreed, and on January 25, 1980, BET made its debut on cable television.


BET began operating a few hours a day. The content was primarily films from the 1940s and 1950s and blaxploitation films. With the advent of MTV, a cable television channel devoted to popular music, music videos had become ingrained into popular culture. In an effort to keep costs low Johnson took advantage of another void, the lack of African American artists appearing on MTV. Johnson formed relationships with record labels to promote on BET videos by rhythm and blues and hip-hop artists. The network also added infomercials, reruns of a gospel show, and African American college football and basketball games. For the first six years BET lost money, and Johnson sought new investors. He recruited Taft Broadcasting Company and Home Box Office. This move provided more money for the channel and increased BET air time to 24 hours a day. In the early 1990s BET turned its first profit.

Johnson established BET Holdings to serve as parent company and decided to offer public stock in BET. On October 30, 1991, BET Holdings became the first African American firm to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1999, believing the stock to be undervalued, Johnson reversed the decision, making his company private again. BET continued its growth by expanding programming to include BET on Jazz, BET on Jazz International, BET movies, and BET Action pay-per-view. Building on brand identity outside of the cable industry, Johnson capitalized by launching African American publications such as YSB, Emerge, Heart & Soul , and Arabesque Books, a line of African American romance novels written by African American authors. Johnson also made a foray into the restaurant business by opening BET Soundstage and BET on Jazz, which were theme restaurants. In 2001 Johnson made an effort to become the only African American to own a major airline by becoming the owner of D.C. Air. His plans were halted when the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to sue to stop the deal over antitrust concerns.


In 2001 Johnson sold BET to Viacom. The deal was worth $3 billion and required that Johnson remain CEO for five more years. This move made Johnson the first African American billionaire in the United States. After selling BET, Johnson formed the RLJ Companies, where he began new ventures. Johnson purchased the National Basketball Association expansion franchise in North Carolina, the Charlotte Bobcats. He also developed hotels under L.J. Development; Leeward Islands Lottery Holdings Company, an online lottery company; Ortanique Restaurants; Wolverine Pizza; and Three Key Music, a jazz recording company.


The success of BET stemmed from Johnson's vision to capitalize on cable programming to an underserved African American market. He also used African American talent by hiring executives, producers, and on-air performers. In an interview with Robert G. Miller in the Black Collegian , Johnson commented, "As an entrepreneur, sometimes you make it up as you go along. You have to have an unshaken belief in yourself, work harder than the next guy, and do whatever it takes with determination. You have to have an ability to engage people to believe in you, while being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. You must be able to marshal the resources to achieve that vision. That means you have to find good people, support them, and have the steadfastness to stay in there" (October 8, 2001).

See also entry on BET Holdings, Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

Hughes, Alan, "Slam Dunk!," Black Enterprise , March 2003, pp. 94–99.

Jones, Joyce, "Betting on Black," Black Enterprise , January 2001, pp. 58–61.

Miller, Robert G., "A Business Titan: Redefining Black Entrepreneurial Success," Black Collegian , October 2000, pp. 140–143.

Pulley, Brett, The Billion Dollar BET: Robert Johnson and the Inside Story of Black Entertainment Television , New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004.

——, "The Cable Capitalist," Forbes , October 8, 2001, pp. 42–54.

Spanberg, Erik, "Taking Care of Business: Robert Johnson has a Long History of Seizing Every Opportunity to Build a Business Empire," The Business Journal , March 28, 2003, p. A4.

—Tiffeni J. Fontno

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