BET Co-Founder Sheila Johnson Calls BET ‘Squandered’ Opportunity

The black community has long complained about the parade of embarrassing and exploitative fare that gets passed off as entertainment on BET, and now we are getting criticism coming from an unusual source: BET co-founder Sheila Johnson.

At an art and film festival in Monterey, CA, Johnson was surprisingly open about what her former network has degenerated into.

“I think we squandered a really important cable network, when it really could have been the voice of Black America. We’re losing our voice as a race as a result,” she told the audience during the “Conversations and Encounters” program at the Carmel Art and Film Festival. “I’m really worried about what our young people are watching. There are so many young people who are using the television as a babysitter. We have parents who are not being parents and not monitoring what their children are watching.”

Launched in 1980, Black Entertainment Television reaches about 90 million households in the U.S.—far more than the 14 million black households in the country. Bob and Sheila Johnson sold the network to Viacom in 2000 for $3 billion.

During her speech, Johnson told the story of the network’s founding and said she is most proud of its show “Teen Summit,” which ran from 1989 to 2002.

“All of those young people (on the show) became so successful because they had a voice,” Johnson said, according to the Monterey Herald. “And we were talking about issues out there and they became leaders in life.”

But she said the network now “reinforces negative stereotypes of young people, African Americans in particular.”

But those criticisms have been leveled at the network from the beginning, long before the Johnsons handed it over to a white company. Several years ago, Aaron McGruder created an entire episode of his satirical cartoon “The Boondocks” directed at BET. Though the episode has aired in other countries such as Canada, it has never aired in the United States because of threatened litigation.

In the episode, a character who is supposed to represent BET President Debra Lee states:

“Our leader Bob Johnson had a dream, a dream that would accomplish what hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and malt liquor could not accomplish – the destruction of black people.”

Johnson is owner of the WNBA Washington Mystics and a minority owner of the NHL’S Washington Senators and the NBA’S Washington Wizards. Her ex-husband is former majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats.



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