The 2005–2012 logo often used a red star
After stepping down as a lobbyist for the cable industry, Freeport, Illinois native Robert L. Johnson decided to launch his own cable television network. Johnson would soon acquire a loan for $15,000 and a $500,000 investment from media executive John Malone to start the network. The network, which was named Black Entertainment Television (BET), launched on January 25, 1980. Initially broadcasting for two hours a week as a block of programming on the Madison Square Garden Sports Network (which would change their name to USA Network three months after BET launched). (it would not be until 1983 that BET became a full-fledged channel), the network's lineup consisted of music videos and reruns of popular black sitcoms.
BET launched a news program, BET News, in 1988, with Ed Gordon as its anchor. Gordon later hosted other programs and specials on BET, such as Black Men Speak Out: The Aftermath, related to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and a recurring interview show, Conversations with Ed Gordon. In 1996, the talk show BET Tonight debuted with Tavis Smiley as host; in 2001, Ed Gordon replaced Smiley as host of the program.
In 1991, the network became the first black-controlled TV company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Starting the late 1990s, the network expanded with the launch of digital cable networks: what is now the general interest channel BET Her originally launched as BET on Jazz (later known as BET Jazz and BET J), created originally to showcase jazz music-related programming, especially that of black jazz musicians; in 1998, it entered into a joint venture with Starz (then-owned by John Malone's Liberty Media) to launch a multiplex service of the premium channel featuring African American-oriented movies called BET Movies: Starz! 3 (later renamed Black Starz after BET dropped out of the venture following its purchase by Viacom, then-owner of Starz rival Showtime, and now known as Starz InBlack). In 2001, the network lost its status as a black-owned business when it was bought by media conglomerate Viacom for $3 billion. In 2005, Johnson retired from the network, turning over his titles of president and chief executive officer to former BET vice president Debra L. Lee.
By 2007, the network had launched two more music-oriented networks, BET Hip-Hop and BET Gospel. BET also launched a batch of original programming by this time, including reality shows Baldwin Hills and Hell Date, competition show Sunday Best, and town hall-style discussion show Hip Hop vs. America. BET's president of entertainment Reginald Hudlin resigned from the network on September 11, 2008. He was then replaced by Stephen Hill, who is also executive vice president of music programming and talent. BET announced in March 2010 that Ed Gordon would return to the network to host "a variety of news programs and specials."
In March 2017, president of programming Stephen Hill and executive vice president of original programming Zola Mashariki both stepped down. Connie Orlando, senior vice president of Specials, Music Programming, and News was named the interim president of programming.
In July 2017, Viacom signed new film and television development deals with Tyler Perry; the television development deal will begin in May 2019 following the expiration of his existing pact with Oprah Winfrey Network, with new series primarily being developed for BET.