BET/Viacom Deal Stirs Great Hopes for BET-On-Jazz

BET/Viacom Deal Stirs Great Hopes for BET-On-Jazz

By Willard Jenkins, for Impact
copyright © 2000 Willard Jenkins

Ladies & Gents:

A number of colleagues have inquired as to my take on the recent sale of Black Entertainment Television (BET) to the giant communications corp. Viacom; the questions have been particularly concerned with the future of BET On Jazz ("the jazz channel"). The attached message is a weekly heads-up for a webzine I've begun serving as jazz correspondent. In this current issue I wrote an editorial on the BET/Viacom deal as it relates to the jazz channel.

Any comments? You know the number. . .

Willard Jenkins

News of the sale of Black Entertainment Televisioin to Viacom arrived quickly and without much forewarning. Here in the Washington, D.C. area -- headquarters for BET and its affiliate operations, not to mention home to its significant workforce -- the initial reports in the Washington Post suggested that the sale would mean the end of BET's D.C. presence. Obviously this was cause for no small amount of alarm and consternation among those who work for BET, including those of us who are BET contractors. And as a contractor-producer/host of Jazz Ed, a weekly show on BET-On-Jazz ("the jazz channel") and host/associate producer of Uncut, a weekly VJ, show on the jazz channel, I felt this was a cautionary note, to say the least.

The foreshadowing of the deal came in the Wednesday edition of the Post. Fully realizing that BET founder Robert Johnson had long ago moved from the realm of media maven to venture capitalist -- as evidenced by his ever-broadening network of businesses, the most recent of which was his intention to launch his own airline, tentatively known as DC Air, in affiliation with the pending United/USAirways merger -- that this might be much more than mere rumor was crystal-clear.

By that week's Saturday edition of the Post, the deal was done. From a personal standpoint, and as one keenly concerned about the predominantly African-American BET workforce, I found the two most positives elements of the sale of BET to Viacom were that the headquarters would remain in the DC and that BET-On-Jazz was a key element in the sale. For those unfamiliar, the BET headquarters of studios and offices sits on a significant parcel of real estate.

Where the Viacom deal concerned BET-On-Jazz became an even more significant and upbeat part of the picture when further into the announcement article it was revealed that not all of the Johnson/BET empire was to be part of the sale.

BET-On-Jazz, while not without its problems, is a meritorious idea run where no one has previously ever dared go: 24-hour jazz, jazz-related (various streams like the blues, "smooth" jazz, and world music), and related "lifestyle" programming. And as Paxton Baker, the BET VP responsible for the jazz channel, has suggested in no uncertain terms, "if we fail to develop a viable market for 24-hour jazz on television with this grand idea, 24-hour jazz TV might never again reach the U.S. airways."

Let's not forget for a minute that in jazz music we are talking about a true metaphor for American life, a true product of the Afridan-American experience in its origins, that is recognized around the globe as this country's greatest cultural export. If you doubt that or remain unconvinced, tune your television to your local PBS affiliatebeginning January 8 for Ken Burns' fascinating, unprecedented 10-part documentary series Jazz.

The major issue facing BET-On-Jazz all along has been raising its viewership profile. Currently hovering somewhere around 6-7 million domestic viewers that includes a significant international audience via BET International, the jazz channel continues to strive for that golden mark of 10 million viewers that will open the doorways to major national advertising clients.

Gaining widespread carriage by cable operators is a major tussle. Back in the virgin days of cable television the operators actually paid the channels to carry them--a classic seller's market. When news of the vast channel possibilities became a reality, it seems everyone had a niche cable channel idea in his or her back pocket and suddenly where the cable operators were concerned it became truly a buyers' market--thus the script was effectively flipped. Debra L. Lee, president and COO of BET, characterized the successful process by which the jazz channel became part of the channel offerings of Time Warner cable in Manhattan as akin to a beauty contest.

The various gnashing of teeth that followed news of the BET/Viacom deal at the perceived loss of yet another African-American owned business, fail to grasp the realities of life in the business world today, which in this arena of corporate upsizing and mega-conglomerates -- like them or not -- necessitated that Johnson forge such a deal. A sentiment prudently echoed by Rev. Jesse Jackson. This is a classic example of one savvy businessman doing as all the other savvy businessmen around him are doing. And while we may not like what is viewed as a significant loss of business progress, at least where this noble experiment with jazz television is concerned, this may indeed be a positive and prudent business move.

It's not a secret that BET-On-Jazz has shed significant red blood from the BET coffers, but its quite interesting that given that obvious flow of red ink, Viacom still found the jazz slice of the BET business pie of sufficient potential to make it a major piece of the purchase puzzle. From this lifelong jazz-advocate's corner -- not to mention my personal stake in its programming -- I'm hopeful this new business deal will mean that given its powerful muscle, Viacom will be able to ensure the future of this experiment in creative programming.

Willard Jenkins, vice-president of the Jazz Journalists Association, originally wrote this piece for posting on, to which he's a regular contributor. He is also producer-host of BET on Jazz' "Jazz Ed," and host/associate producer of the channel's "Uncut."

[From the same edition of Impact

Verizon Targets African-Americans on

Verizon Communications has entered into a three-year, $3 million deal with, the largest African-American-targeted web site. The communications group will sponsor the's Lifestyle Channel, which provides online movie reviews, industry gossip and behind-the-scenes news from the entertainment arena.


NUE, MBC Announce Deals

Los Angeles -- A pair of start-up cable networks targeting African-American audiences announced programming and distribution advancements during the Western Show cable television trade event last week. New Urban Entertainment Television (NUE-TV) announced an affiliation agreement with Cox Communications Inc., which reaches 6.2 million households. NUE-TV, which counts music mogul Quincy Jones as a minority investor, said the distribution deal with Cox would take effect immediately.]

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