40 Years of Black Excellence at BET

BET Turns 40

In January of 1980, Robert L. Johnson left his position at NCTA and, with his wife Sheila Johnson, launched the first TV network “that allowed Black people to see themselves, their stories, and their culture on television,” according to BET President Scott Mills. In the 40 years since its founding, BET has successfully stood as a leader in elevating Black voices and experiences, and inspiring generations of writers, actors, and creatives to tell their own stories. From awards shows like the BET Awards, to community projects, from nationwide campaigns, to its latest initiative, “Content for Change,” which comes in the wake of the nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd, BET has celebrated African American culture while also shining a light on the serious issues and challenges that the community faces in this country.

Earlier this year, NCTA visited BET headquarters in New York to celebrate four decades of Black excellence and to learn more about the network’s success. A true trailblazer, BET boasts a number of firsts in its history: the first television network entirely devoted to African Americans, the first Black controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, the first African American (Johnson) to become a billionaire, just to name a few. Those successes are a direct reflection of the dedication the network has to serving its audience well beyond the realm of entertainment.

“I think what draws the audience is the authenticity of the programming,” Jeanine Liburd, Chief Social Impact and Communications Officer, explains. “One of the things we hear over and over, watching BET is like being home. So whether it’s sitcoms, or movies, or award shows, or our original content…there’s always a show that either reminds you of something in your past or is bringing you something you want to attain in your future. And it’s always on and it’s consistent, it can be comfortable but still exciting and new.”

Over four decades, the network has grown beyond the television set. Live events such as the BET Awards, and community programs like the Media Entertainment and Technology Alliance (META), in addition to ongoing advocacy work like the #ReclaimYourVote campaign, have become part of BET’s identity and are at the core of its mission. Starting in 2001, the BET Awards have become an annual cultural event, celebrating the best in Black culture for almost twenty years.

“When [BET] was started, its mission was simply to entertain, to create an opportunity for Black stories and Black voices on television,” Mills notes. “Fast-forward 40 years, and…on the one hand, the world has changed massively since BET was created, but the reality is the condition of the African American community is not great. Whether it’s social justice issues, education issues, income issues, healthcare issues, by most metrics the African American community is doing significantly less-well than other communities. And what we said was we believe BET can play an important role in starting to change the trajectory of the African American community.”

The reality, Mills continued, is that media, entertainment, and technology platforms have the ability to create values, perceptions, expectations, and narratives. With that in mind, BET moved forward with its mission to work with various partners—from creative executives, academics, to philanthropic organizations, and used its influence and platform to develop those narratives, perspectives, and values that encompass the African American community.

“When I think about BET’s milestones,” Liburd told NCTA, “it’s really about Black excellence and the celebration of Black excellence. Whether it’s through the BET Awards, BET Honors, Black Girls Rock; we truly show what extraordinary looks like, and I completely believe that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it, and I think that’s what our biggest milestone legacy is, that we show not just what it’s like to be in front of the camera and amazing, but what it’s like to be behind the camera and be phenomenal.”