Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television alongside her ex-husband Bob Johnson, was asked by The Daily Beast blog what she thought about her groundbreaking network since selling it to Viacom in 2000 for $1.3 billion.
“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 twentysomething 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 was being interviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival about the premiere of “The Other City,” a searing, but ultimately hopeful documentary she produced about the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C. — an epidemic Johnson says BET is making worse, and potentially contributing to its spread, by promoting promiscuous, unprotected sex in raunchy videos.
“When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television,” Johnson told the blog. “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 at 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.”
Johnson says she has absolutely nothing to do with BET these day.
“I just really wish—and not just BET but a lot of television programming—that they would stop lowering the bar so far just so they can get eyeballs to the screen,” she says. “I know they think that’s what’s going to keep programming on the air; that’s what’s going to sell advertising. But there has got to be some responsibility. Somebody has got to take this over. Because with all the studies that are out there, this is contributing to an atmosphere of free sex, ‘I don’t have to protect myself anymore.’”