Robert Johnson personifies black excellence. RLJ, Johnson’s holding company, is a notable philanthropist, serial entrepreneur, and investor, but he will always be remembered as the founder of the first black cable channel, Black Entertainment Television (BET).
According to Johnson, the founder of Ebony, John Johnson, inspired the idea for BET. Ebony was the premier magazine profiling successful African-Americans from all walks of life at its peak.
“He had his stories in print, it was nationally distributed, but through a magazine, nobody was doing it in video and certainly no one was doing it on a national scale to aggregate as many Black households because the technology didn’t exist.”
Johnson founded BET after leaving the National Cable and Television Association NCTA, where he was vice president of government relations, in the 1980s. He previously worked as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s public affairs director and as the National Urban League’s Washington, D.C. office’s director of communications.
Following the revolution of satellite TV in the United States, channels were able to retain a national audience. He met an elderly man who wanted to create a channel for the elderly, according to him. He looked at the brochure his partner created while lobbying the Senate Committee on Aging for the creation of the channel.
“I looked at it and he had all of these things: the elderly buy a certain kind of product, the elderly have a certain kind of income, the elderly have a certain set of needs, and the elderly are not appropriately projected on television,” Johnson said, according to Black Enterprise.