Black Entertainment Television (BET) is a Viacom–owned cable network based in Washington, D.C. The cable channel is viewed in more than 90 million homes worldwide. As of 2010 it was the most prominent television network targeting young black-American audiences and was the leading provider of black American cultural and entertainment based programming.
The network first aired on January 25, 1980. Its founder, Robert L. Johnson, was a former lobbyist for the cable television industry in the late 1970s. In that capacity, Johnson quickly recognized the dearth of television programming designed for the African American public and created BET to reach that demographic audience.
BET premiered in 1980 modestly as a channel that ran two hours of weekly programming in select east coast cities. By the end of the year it extended its viewership throughout North America and the Caribbean and expanded programming to 24 hours of news and entertainment. Most of its early entertainment consisted of music videos, reruns of old black situation comedies and some original programs. The company lost money during its first several years but began to turn profitable by the mid 1980s. It also initiated changes in its format. BET by 1985 began to diversify its programming, adding politically-oriented news programs, comedy showcases, talk shows and sports features.
In 1988 BET News was launched with Ed Gordon serving as the anchor of the first half hour news program directed toward an African American audience. Gordon also served as host of a number of other programs and specials for BET, most notably a candid, in-depth interview in 1996 with former Heisman trophy winner and Hall of Fame football player Orenthal (O.J.) Simpson, who recently had been acquitted of murdering his wife. It was also during this year that BET Talk (later BET Tonight) debuted with Tavis Smiley.
The channel continued to flourish in the late 1990s with several news programs including Our Voices and Lead Story. By 1991, BET offered programming 24 hours a day; and it had expanded from music videos to gospel programs, public affairs shows, and Black college sports. The company also began its publishing division, with the purchase of YSB (Young Sisters & Brothers), a teen magazine; and a majority stake in Emerge, known as “Black America’s News Magazine.” That same year, BET went public, becoming the first African-American-owned company to trade on the New York Stock exchange. Much of the money raised in the public offering was used to reduce the company’s debt and to buy back stock held by Great American Broadcasting (which had acquired Taft Broadcasting in the interim).
However by 2002, as part of a restructuring, management switched its focus to entertainment programs primarily airing rap videos while eliminating its news staff and cancelling all of its news programs except BET Nightly News anchored by Jacque Reid and Michelle Miller. That program was cancelled in 2005. Later that year BET was sold to Viacom for $3 billion dollars.