By David Bauder
In a special that doubles as a retirement party for network founder Robert Johnson, BET celebrates its 25th anniversary with a music-studded party that debuts on the network Tuesday night.
"25 Strong: The BET Silver Anniversary Special" begins at 9 p.m. EDT. With pre- and post-shows, the event stretches for four hours.
Johnson began Black Entertainment Television from the basement of his Washington home in 1980 and -- like operators of CNN, ESPN and MTV in the same era -- he was the quickest and most adept at capitalizing on an idea during the infancy of cable television. Johnson became the nation's first black billionaire upon selling BET to Viacom in 2000; his deal to stay at the network expires at the end of the year.
He has been succeeded as president and CEO by Debra Lee, who has worked at BET for two decades and is continuing the network's focus on entertainment and viewers aged 18 to 34.
Johnson sat and listened to tributes at the anniversary special, taped last week at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
Hip-hop entrepreneur Diddy said Johnson's success with BET paved the way for himself and others to get into business. "What did you do with a billion dollars?" he asked.
"Bob Johnson had the vision to create a network for us when nobody else was," Queen Latifah said.
Johnson, owner of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, said that he is not retiring. He said he's been asked several times how it feels to be leaving BET behind and he responded with a Levert quote, "even though I haven't gone yet, I'm already missing you. Thank you and goodbye."
The first video aired on BET's "Video Soul" in 1981 was Earth, Wind and Fire's "Let's Groove," and the band reprised the song during a performance on the special.
BET is now a sister network to MTV, and the special bore all of the hallmarks of that affiliation. MTV Networks are strong believers in special events as a way of drawing in viewers, like MTV's Video Music Awards and Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice awards. Viacom co-president Tom Freston was even spotted on the aisle at the Shrine as Nelly walked down singing "Hot in Heerre."
BET's anniversary celebration also included a special first aired Sunday: "All Shades of Fine: 25 Hottest Men of the Past 25 Years."
The special reviewed the past quarter-century in five-year chunks, featuring performances by Snoop Dogg, Bobby Brown, Mary J. Blige, LL Cool J, John Legend, Usher and others.
Although there was a brief tribute to the late Rosa Parks, the emphasis was on entertainment. The most frequent criticism of BET through the years is that it doesn't reflect the lives of black Americans more broadly, both in their interests and age groups.
The special also offered an intriguing peek into television's future. During the telecast, advertising banners occasionally appeared on the background of the stage, similar to messages superimposed behind home plate during baseball broadcasts. McDonald's and singer Eric Benet's record company were among the advertisers.
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