Robert L. Johnson is the founder and chairman of The RLJ Companies, an innovative business network that owns and holds interests in businesses operating in hotel real estate, private equity, consumer financial services, asset management, automobile dealerships, sports and entertainment, and video lottery terminal (VLT) gaming.
Prior to forming The RLJ Companies, Johnson was the founder and chairman of Black Entertainment Television (BET), the nation’s first and leading television network for the African American audience.
Johnson continues to attract and manage capital to create value for investors. In 2012 he announced the successful creation of RLJ Entertainment, Inc., which is now one of the largest independent global distributors of digital and video content. This is his third public company. In 2001, Johnson sold BET to Viacom for approximately $3 billion while remaining the Chief Executive Officer through 2006. The following year, USA Today named him one of “The 25 Most Influential Business Leaders of the Past 25 Years”.
Here, he talks about his recent launch of the Urban Movie Channel (UMC), a premium subscription-based video streaming service exclusive to RLJ Entertainment. UMC is the first urban focused digital streaming channel devoted to the acquisition of feature films, comedy specials, stage plays, documentaries, music, and entertainment for the African American and urban audiences. Access to the impressive on-demand streaming library is available with online from mobile devices, and on the Roku platform.
Kam Williams (KW): How you see this new platform being used in the new world of multiple screens experiences. Will you be bringing your content to all of the computer and other available functionality, such as social media and interactive technology?
Bob Johnson (BJ): UMC is an over the top, digital streaming channel that is subscription-based, meaning that the consumer pays to get the service. It is targeted to the Urban/African-American audience, but we believe good entertainment is colorblind, so it is available to everybody, essentially, who wants to go to the site. If you have a web browser, you can get UMC. Our goal with UMC is to bring the creative talent in the African-American community, which in many ways is underemployed, to the consumers who desire to see the content that projects their images and tells their stories. And it is designed to create an economic model where members of the creative community can monetize their talent and where the consumers will have a choice to purchase product and content that they can see on any device, whether it’s their flat screen TV, their mobile phone, iPad, or any other device that can receive digital streaming content. We believe that, given the choice, these consumers will see UMC as a service they’d like to have along with Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime or HBO Go in order to get content not available elsewhere, and at the price they want.
KW: Are you interested in extending your distribution vision to include Black World Cinema?
BJ: The great thing about the digital world and the Internet is that you can instantly be available to a global marketplace. And there is a tremendous amount of creative content in what I would call the multicultural or diaspora of people of color that we believe would clearly be attractive to audiences here in the U.S. And by the same token, content produced here would be attractive to people around the world. African-American creative content has proven its ability to travel. Jazz is a universal music enjoyed around the globe, as well as other African-American cultural influences, such as hip-hop and rap music. We want to make sure that it happens with feature films and other content that hasn’t been exposed as much as the music in terms of its potential to appeal to a wider audience.
KW: What can the average person do to help improve diversity in entertainment media?
BJ: Well, the most important thing that the average consumer can do is to take advantage of the opening of the marketplace where you the consumer controls what content you watch or gain access to. Because of the availability of all sorts of platforms, you’re no longer tied to cable, the networks or the satellites. You can be your own programmer. And that’s the beauty of UMC. For the first time, urban content can flow directly to the consumers without any gatekeepers. So you’re not controlled by what advertisers are willing to sponsor, by what studio heads decide to produce, or by the cable operators who will force you to pay for content that you don’t want to see through their bonded channels. You are your own curator; you are your own programmer. So, to me, the smartest thing any consumer can do is subscribe to whatever it is you want to see. And the more people subscribe to urban content, the more of it will be produced for your enjoyment.
KW: Mr. Johnson, do you think there is any possibility whatsoever that African-Americans will organize their consumption power in such a way that it can be leveraged? If so, what factor most needs addressing to make that happen? If not, why do you think people keep preaching that line of thought?
BJ: I’d say African-Americans already organize their consumption power. They just don’t leverage it. For example, African-Americans as a whole watch more television than any other population group in the country in terms of total hours spent in front of the TV. African-Americans are heavy consumers of pay TV and cable TV. African-Americans are early adopters of new technology, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. The key is that we have to make sure that choices are available to us, so that our purchasing power will yield content that we want to see. There are two million African-American cable subscribers who also take HBO and Showtime at a cost of about $40 a month. That’s a billion dollars of buying power. We’d like to see some of that billion dollars of buying power go to UMC. We promise you that that money will flow to the creative talent, both in front of and behind the camera, to deliver programming that specifically appeals to your viewing interest. This new technology will change the way African-Americans access content, as well as change the way that content is produced.