BET head offers to take stake in UPN for laffer

Johnson, other minority partners may invest in net

NEW YORK — Robert Johnson, chairman and CEO of BET Holdings, is proposing to take an equity stake in the UPN Network in exchange for the right to play some of UPN’s sitcoms on the BET Network a week or two after their premiere on UPN.

Stressing that he hasn’t held any meetings yet with Viacom and Chris Craft/United, the owners of UPN, Johnson was responding to the possibility that Viacom, which is about to merge with CBS, may be forced to sell all or part of UPN if the government insists that one company can’t own two broadcast networks.

The merger jumped back into the headlines Wednesday when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, head of the Rainbow Coalition, presided over two separate news briefings to discuss a meeting he and three leading minority businessmen held with Mel Karmazin, chairman of CBS, and Marty Franks, CBS’ chief Washington lobbyist.

Jackson said the meeting was cordial, but he strongly disagreed with CBS’ unwavering conviction that the 35% cap on TV-station ownership should be thrown out. If the Viacom-CBS merger goes through, the combined stations owned by the new entity would cover 41% of the U.S.

If the cap is relaxed, Jackson said during a telephone conference call with reporters, minority groups would end up the losers. “When too few companies control too much of the media,” he said, “then local community ownership goes by the boards.”

Jackson said that the merged company would want to continue owning UPN because Viacom controls TV stations in a number of major cities that are UPN affiliates. As Jackson analyzed it, if Viacom were forced to sell a bunch of these TV stations to keep within a 35% FCC-imposed cap, UPN’s distribution could suffer a potentially mortal wound.

Eager for a deal

But if Viacom wanted to unload its stake in UPN for that reason, Jackson said that, in addition to Johnson, there are a number of well-financed minority businessmen who’d be willing to consider making a deal with Viacom.

Jackson cited the three executives who accompanied him to the meeting with Karmazin and Franks: Percy Sutton, former chairman of Inner City Broadcasting; Chester Davenport, chairman and CEO of Georgetown Partners; and Jill Garcia, identified by Jackson as a principal in the Spanish Broadcasting System.

But Johnson could make the most practical use of UPN’s programming by replaying the primetime-series episodes on BET, which reaches more than 58 million cable and satellite homes. The extra runs on cable would justify the escalating production cost of some of UPN’s black-themed sitcoms such as “Moesha” and “Malcolm & Eddie,” which Johnson says can reach as high as $900,000 a half-hour.