Black Equity Television: Why Paramount Global Should Turn BET Into a Community-Owned Network (Guest Column)

Recent news reports suggest Paramount Global may be considering a sale of its cable channel BET. Further reports identify media moguls Tyler Perry, Byron Allen, Sean “Diddy” Combs and a partnership comprised of Shaquille O’Neil, 50 Cent, and Kenya Barris as prospective buyers of the platform, which was originally created to offer programing targeted toward Black viewers. Each of these potential suitors is more than worthy of the opportunity to helm such a significant portal of Black imagery. Still, a greater agenda raises additional considerations and a distinctive option for ownership.

Founded by Robert L. Johnson in 1980, BET has been a primary hub for Black-themed content since its inception. Johnson sold the cable channel to Viacom in 2001 for $3 billion, resulting in an infusion of capital and infrastructure expansion, to include the addition of BET+ and BET Her. The broadcast schedule is populated with original scripted and unscripted programming, as well as acquired off-net fare, with daily viewership currently hovering near 1.7 million and annual ad revenues exceeding $215 million. While the mere existence of BET has demonstrated the power of the Black economy, its celebration of Black culture further highlights its prominence and influence.

Black contributions to “mainstream” culture are invaluable and incalculable. Without that contribution, the result would be a vapid society and certainly a bland entertainment landscape. Diverse perspectives and platforms like BET must be protected. So must the equity interest of those who contribute to its cultural richness.

In an effort to stave off the threat of bankruptcy in 1923, the Green Bay Packers sold ownership interests to local taxpayers. Today, more than 350,000 residents of the Wisconsin city are each shareholders of a $4.25 billion dollar asset. This community-owned model offers an intriguing consideration for the disposition of BET.

There is no shortage of Black individuals who are capable and committed to reforming the legacy of distorted narratives about Black life. Many accomplished content creators would undoubtedly strive to program a Black-themed media platform in ways that elevate consciousness, to include more accurate and dimensional depictions of history, current circumstances and future possibilities. Still, the question remains: To whom is Black equity owed?

While the talents of Black storytellers, content creators, and facilitators working in Hollywood are remarkable, they are mere proxies for the 42 million Black folks that populate our nation and the 8 billion around the world. The essence of that mass experience is commodified and distributed through global media, driving a business model that depends on those same originators of culture to purchase a ticket or subscription to access reflections of their own lives.

A collective of Black investors from every corner of the diaspora should be assembled to amass sufficient capital to purchase and operate BET. Like the model in Green Bay, everyday members of the Black community should hold a stake in the communal asset. A seasoned group of accomplished Black business leaders and creatives should be gathered to serve as the Board of Directors. A staff of inventive Black executives should be hired, and a slate of innovative Black-themed content should be programmed, resulting in a sum greater than its parts – BET: Black Equity Television.

Kyle Bowser is senior vice president of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau, and is responsible for advancing NAACP’s Hollywood projects, relationships, and overseeing NAACP’s Image Awards production. For nearly three decades, Kyle Bowser has worked as an entertainment industry executive, spanning film, television, music, theater, radio, and digital media.

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