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Robert Johnson

Can Robert Johnson bring more blacks online?
Black Entertainment Television's founder is launching a $35 million African-American portal site. Will it help mend the digital divide?

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By Raymond Rawlinson

Oct. 6, 1999 | So far, no black entrepreneur has joined the technology industry's billionaire boys club. But Robert Johnson is looking for an invitation.

Johnson is the owner and chairman of Black Entertainment Television (BET), and only the second black businessman to list his company on the New York Stock Exchange. (He subsequently took the cable network private through a leveraged buy-out.) He is also a Friend-of-Bill Democratic power donor and apparently makes the A-list of technology and media titans like Bill Gates and Barry Diller, both of whose companies are backing Johnson's latest move: a Web portal designed to draw more African-Americans to the Internet.

Johnson's Net venture,, scheduled to launch Nov. 1, wrangled some $35 million in start-up funding from Microsoft, USA Networks, News Corp. and AT&T's Liberty Digital. The site, a revamped version of the BET-Microsoft venture MSBET, will feature comprehensive news for the African-American community, better chat technology and a retail area catering to black consumers. (The old site was little more than a home page for BET to showcase its entertainment programs, while the new site will be a true portal, generating revenue through advertising and e-commerce.)

"The African-American online community is growing rapidly," says an announcement on the site, "and thus there is a need for a comprehensive, relevant online product that avails existing and emerging Black and Urban users to the best the Internet has to offer."

But wait a minute. What about NetNoir and Afronet, and Blackvoices? A half-dozen black portals already vie for the Net's black users -- so what will Johnson's bring to the neighborhood?

Money. With $35 million in the bank, plans to create a top-flight site, and to market the hell out of it. If succeeds in its plans, it won't simply draw users from the sites already targeting African-Americans -- it will bring a whole new black audience to the Web.

"The BET brand clearly resonates with the African-American community," says Scott Mills, chief operating officer for "It is recognized by over 90 percent of African-Americans." The idea seems to be to leverage the name and promotional tie-ins with the cable network, and thereby draw more blacks online. One of Johnson's apparent aims is to reverse the so-called "digital divide" between whites and minorities.

"The failure of any community to avail itself of the resources of the Internet will limit its ability to succeed," Johnson told the Associated Press. "BET is bringing its media channels, content and brand resources together with those of our partners to create an online destination that will educate, enrich, empower and entertain African-Americans."

And that is, apparently, just fine by his competitors.

Next page | Will bring more blacks online?

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