Johnson justifies BET sale

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Before a skeptical, but coolly polite crowd of African-American media professionals, BET Chairman Robert Johnson Wednesday defended his decision to sell the largest black-controlled media company to Viacom for $3 billion.

Johnson said he understood why many African-American would be anxious about a leading black-led company coming under the control of a mainstream, "white-owned" corporation. But, as any business owner, he wanted an "exit strategy" that would let him sell his investment at full value.

Although a group of black investors might have been able to raise the necessary cash, Johnson said he wanted a stock deal that would be tax-free and have the better potential for growth than his company would have by itself. Only a giant corporation like Viacom offered that option, he told the Capital Press Club, which was formed by black reporters in the 1940s . "Who are you going to sell your business to if you want to maximize value?" he asked.

Johnson also said black media outlets face an unfair burden because, unlike mainstream outlets, they are expected to place as much emphasis on the social welfare of African-Americans as they do on the bottom line. "We've always been to some extent an appendage of the movement," he said.

Even though he acknowledged that he could be removed from the BET helm tomorrow, Johnson predicted that Viacom honchos Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin will give him a lot of leeway to run BET rather than interfering, if only for business reasons. "You would have to have a conspiracy theory approach to think they're going to take something they paid $3 billion for and turn it against its core market." Finally, he said BET can tap Viacom's deep pockets to improve programming. "It doesn't have to be a zero sum gain." - Bill McConnell

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