On January 25, 1980, BET became the first Black-owned company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Getting listed on the stock exchange is a big deal, and it becomes even bigger when you’re the first Black company to do it. Sine BET was made in order to cater to Black entertainment, there was a lot of courage behind creating a network with such a specific demographic. This isn’t like Lifetime, or even MTV, both of which caters to women and teens, respectively. BET had the ultimate task of being the biggest African American draw without pigeonholing the very ethnicity it is supposed to represent.
Launched by media entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson, he came to the conclusion that Black Entertainment Television was a necessity in a market that had not yet tapped that demographic. There were Black shows on cable television, but they were usually sandwiched between shows that had nothing in common with them. BET began slowly with 2 hours of weekly programming, but quickly found its audience with the rise of music television. Music television is as much to thank for the rise of BET as it is MTV and VH1. Since a lot of the music BET carried was not always played on the other two stations, it was an easy fit. MTV and VH1 were rock and pop focused with their music, as many Top 10’s lists did not even have a rap/r&b video in their Top 5. Since many of these lists were voted in by users, and the results of call-in shows, it was clear that African Americans weren’t VH1’s and MTV’s targeted demographic.
The success of BET continued on the NYSE publicly until 1998, which is when Johnson and his partners gained private control. The market outreach of BET continued to flourish, and it was sold to Viacom for 3 billion dollars in the year 2000. This was a record deal, and had a lot to do with the original programming that had now crept up weekly on the network. Tavis Smiley and other original shows were now household names, and Black Entertainment Television was becoming known more as a great television network, rather than just a network for African Americans. As one of the original big music networks, BET is often compared to MTV and VH1; in reality, it should be compared to networks like Lifetime, since they both have subnetworks under the same name, and with BET they have their very own awards show.
Even after being sold off to Viacom, credit is due to the owners for not changing a formula that is clearly working.