Robert L. Johnson

Robert L. Johnson

Brigitte Lacombe
August 18, 2020
Member News

Robert L. Johnson: It's Time for the Media Industry to Step Up

As told to the Television Academy

With renewed attention to the lack of Black representation in Hollywood, this time feels different because the concern about racial injustice and economic inequity has enveloped every business sector, not just Hollywood. The real question is whether the concern goes deep enough to create fundamental change in Hollywood at the creative, managerial and ownership levels. To paraphrase what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "You can regulate behavior, but you can't legislate morality." Black people do not possess the financial power to change Hollywood or any other aspect of the U. S. economy. Therefore, the question of Black equality in the media industry can only be answered by white Americans in positions of power who have the moral courage to implement policies and programs to ensure Black Americans are treated equally in all facets of the media businesses they own and operate.

In my opinion, there have not been material and significant changes in the television industry. By this, I mean ownership. Nor do I see, in a capitalist system where ownership is the result of access to wealth or capital -- which all data shows Blacks are woefully lacking-- that there will be any change in ownership in television, cable or digital streaming networks/platforms. Yes, there has been change in the number of Blacks on-screen and Blacks who produce content for distribution. In my opinion, this is due to the expansion of distribution outlets rather than an increase in Black participation at each individual distribution platform.

It's only been a few years since Hollywood was chastised by #OscarsSoWhite. Since that movement, I don't know if there are any Black individuals who head major studios, television networks, or large streaming networks. If Hollywood looks at talented producers like Ava DuVernay or Shonda Rhimes as a measure of change in Hollywood, that proves to me that Hollywood is content with the participation of a few Black superstars as being their answer to the need for a broad commitment and full engagement of Black talent in Hollywood. A minimal number of Black talent in front of or behind the camera is not substantive racial equity in a nation of 40 million Blacks who spend more time as a percentage watching television and streaming services than white TV households.

I recommend that the white-owned and controlled media industry set up a multibillion-dollar investment fund to be run by a Black management team, to fund Black-owned companies capable of participating in every part of the media business. This includes ownership, production, studio facilities, creative writing, talent management, costume design, sound, animation, location, advertising, marketing, consumer research, etc. Please don't suggest this will be money poorly spent and this can't be done. I have done it; Cathy Hughes of TV One has done it; Tyler Perry has done it; Oprah Winfrey has done it, and I am certain others interested in business ownership in all of the disciplines can do it. It simply takes brainpower and capital. I am confident that Black people possess the first part; but, I am equally confident they don't have the second part due to 400+ years of socioeconomic discrimination and wealth inequality. To help you better understand what is meant by wealth inequality -- and so you will not rush to argue that "if Bob Johnson and others can do it, why can't many other Black people do what they have done" -- let me share this data with you: "The 99 percentile Black family is worth a mere $1,574,000 while the 99 percentile white family is worth over 12 million dollars. This means over 870,000 white families have a net worth above 12 million dollars, while out of the 20 million Black families in America, fewer than 380,000 are even worth a single million dollars. By comparison, over 13 million of the total 85 million white families are millionaires or better." (Source: Moore and Bruenig, 2017)

This is why I believe the media industry has, perhaps, a greater responsibility to address racial inequity than other business sectors. The information put out in news is a major factor in people's decision-making about what is the state of the country and the world. These stories can influence people's perceptions of and reactions to others based on your content. In television, your broadcast licenses are regulated by the FCC as having a public interest responsibility. Streaming services and social media outlets are already being questioned by the government as to their responsibilities regarding free speech, privacy and economic fairness issues, like net neutrality and monopolistic behavior. While the media industry as a whole has a heightened obligation because of these issues and others, what happens in your business ultimately comes down to your personal decision-making and individual responsibility.

In closing, I am often asked what more can be done to bring authentic Black experiences to the mainstream media. I believe that storytelling begins with the best writing. Therefore, I suggest the industry create a fund to be overseen by the best Black and white writers in Hollywood for the sole purpose of identifying and training Black creative writers. I further propose that each network and streaming service commit a certain amount of content acquisition dollars to air programs written by those Black writers backed by sufficient advertising and marketing promotion to drive viewership. If Hollywood were to create this fund, it would encourage aspiring young Black writers and creative storytellers to believe in themselves and give them the confidence to pursue their dream to tell stories that are long overdue and waiting to be told to all Americans.

-- as told to the Television Academy
Robert L. Johnson is the founder of BET (Black Entertainment Television) and founder of The RLJ Companies.

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The statements and viewpoints expressed in the article above are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the Television Academy, the Television Academy Foundation, or their members, officers, directors, employees, or sponsors.

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