The Branding Of Bet

First, Robert Johnson created a black cable programming company. Then he took BET Holdings public. Now he has alliances with such major players as Microsoft. What will he do for an encore?

It seems appropriate that bet holdings inc. Is headquartered in Washington, D.C., Chocolate City. For over 16 years, BET has been the only African American-controlled cable programming outlet available–a lone gateway for black-oriented programming on the vast cable landscape. The gleaming, six-story, black-mirrored building is hard to miss and more majestic than any nearby structure. Upon entering, one is reminded of the movie Boomerang, in which Eddie Murphy starred as an executive at a highly successful black-owned and operated advertising agency. Unfortunately, Murphy’s firm was located in a fictional metropolis somewhere between Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

But BET is not in the land of make-believe. Here, an army of well- groomed, articulate African Americans go about the business of making BET the “preeminent provider of black entertainment, information and images.” As we continue to be bombarded with negative images of African Americans, BET Holdings offers a glimpse of our society suddenly gone right–a testament to the leadership of Bob Johnson, the company’s founder, chairman and CEO, who has grown the company from a fledgling cable station, with only one night of programming into a media behemoth. “We set out to create a network that would showcase black talent and creativity,” says Johnson, 51. “The BET of today is consistent with what I planned at its launch, but it s also more.”

More indeed. An IPO on the New York Stock Exchange (BTV) in 1991 netted the company $72 million. A year later, BET debuted on our BE 100s at No. 15, and has remained among the higher echelon of African American-owned companies. In recent years, BET, with a current market capitalization of nearly $500 million, has become more than just “the black music video channel.” It has extended its brand into other markets beyond its programming roots.

A large portion of BET’s expansion has occurred since January 1996, much of it focusing on Johnson’s three key areas: entertainment, information and leisure products and services. Its offerings include four cable channels: BET Cable network, BET on Jazz, Action Pay Per View and BET Movies/Starz3. On the information front, Emerge magazine and BET Weekend, a monthly newspaper insert, are its publishing vehicles, and MSBET is an online service providing a mix of information and entertainment. The BET SoundStage restaurant in Largo, Maryland, and a proposed BET-themed casino-hotel in Las Vegas, target Johnson’s third key market–leisure activities. BET Holdings has also entered the financial services market and the cosmetics and apparel industries, all unexpected moves for a business built around cable programming.

Wall Street seems enamored with BET’s recent efforts to increase its hold on the African American market. Though optimistic about the company’s diversification, some analysts express concern with their moves into areas outside the entertainment realm. But Spencer Grimes, an analyst with investment firm, Smith Barney, points to the recent performance of the BET Holdings’ stock, which was trading near its all- time high of$32.125 in April. After an initial purchase price of $17 per share in 1991, the stock languished in the low-to-mid-teens

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