Black Entertainment Television, which Sheila Crump Johnson and her husband Bob started three decades ago with $15,000 in seed money and a $500,000 investment from media mogul John Malone, made her one of wealthiest women in America.
When Viacom bought them out in 2000, Sheila and Bob pocketed $1.3 billion—making them, pre-Oprah, the nation’s first African-American billionaires.
So today she must be extremely proud of her baby, right?
“Don’t even get me started,” says the 60-year-old Johnson, who has since divorced and remarried (charmingly enough, to the Virginia circuit court judge who presided over her divorce). “I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids [a 20-something daughter and a college-age son] that they don’t watch it… I’m ashamed of it, if you want to know the truth.”
Johnson—who was at the Tribeca Film Festival this week for the premiere of The Other City, a searing, but ultimately hopeful documentary she produced about the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C.—says BET is making matters worse, and potentially contributing to the spread of AIDS, by promoting promiscuous, unprotected sex in raunchy late-night rap videos.
It wasn’t always that way. “When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television,” Johnson said. “We had public affairs programming. We had news… I had a show called Teen Summit, we had a large variety of programming, but the problem is that then the video revolution started up… And then something started happening, and I didn’t like it all. And I remember during those days we would sit up and watch these videos and decide which ones were going on and which ones were not. We got a lot of backlash from recording artists…and we had to start showing them. I didn’t like the way women were being portrayed in these videos.”