BET Expands TV Empire to the Web

Leveraging 20 years of success in the cable television business and powerful contacts in the TV and computing industries, BET Holdings is taking its Black Entertainment Television brand to the Web with BET.com. BET Chairman Robert Johnson lined up Microsoft Corp., Liberty Digital L.L.C., News Corp. and USA Networks Inc. to fund the joint venture with $35 million (US$) in start-up money. The partners also agreed to provide millions of dollars in kind support to market the new Web site.

Johnson is touting BET.com as the most significant economic investment on the Internet by an African American-owned company. BET Holdings already operates BET, a general programming cable channel geared toward black interests, BET on Jazz, a cable music channel and BET/Starz!, a pay-movie channel. Despite its high-power allies, BET will retain majority ownership of the new Web venture.

BET.com will be a portal for African Americans of all ages, featuring content covering relevant topics in news, entertainment, sports, education, health, family, history, finance, careers, technology and travel. The site will offer e-mail and instant messaging services and interactive chat communities.

In addition, BET says the site will market and sell products and services that appeal specifically to the African-American market, such as urban apparel, books, music, and beauty and health care products. BET.com is slated to launch in November and have online shopping capabilities in time for the holiday season.

Brand Leverage

As it tries to tap into the buying power of a major segment of the U.S. population, which Johnson argues is underserved on the Internet, BET.com will trade heavily on its name recognition. The company, with a market value of about $1.5 billion, has brought its cable channels into 57 million of the estimated 65 million total U.S. cable households. The company claims the BET brand is recognized by more than 90 percent of African Americans.

Entering the new world of online entertainment and commerce, however, BET also plans to tap the extensive marketing experience of its partners. USA Networks Chairman Barry Diller is widely recognized in the movie and TV businesses for his innovative thinking, which revived a floundering Paramount Studios in the 1970s with the smash hit “Saturday Night Fever” and later launched the immensely successful Home Shopping Network on TV and, more recently, the Internet.

“We think taking BET onto the Internet is simply a great idea,” Diller said. “USA’s interactive abilities in e-commerce, fulfillment and customer care ought to be able to contribute significantly to BET’s online offering.”

News Corp., another partner, owns the Fox Broadcasting empire, including the nation’s fourth-ranked broadcast network, a group of regional cable sports channels reaching all 50 states and several other cable channels. The company is also heavily invested in print media, owning TV Guide, the New York Post and several other papers around the world.

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