Debra Lee - Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, BET Networks
Debra Lee's HOF Speech
Though she is responsible for reinvigorating and expanding the top cable brand in the African-American community, BET Networks Chairman and CEO Debra Lee is the last to credit herself for her accomplishments. "You need [to surround yourself with] the kind of executives who are flexible and can focus on whatever the challenges are of that particular time, be it new technology, affiliate deals, or what advertisers are looking for," Lee says of her personal success strategy.
But beyond her humility, perhaps it's this focus on building relationships with all sides of the entertainment industry that has allowed BET, under Lee's purview, to reach 89 million households and close the second quarter of 2010 with the highest performance among viewers in its 30-year history. And perhaps that's why Philipe Dauman, president and CEO of Viacom, calls Lee a "bridge-builder" as she joins the B&C Hall of Fame with the class of 2010.
"She is able to connect with the community she serves, with her team, with partners in a way that many of us should emulate," Dauman says. "She's been a very effective business leader and has driven the performance of the business to new heights."
But when Lee, who holds a law degree and a master 's in public policy from Harvard, left law firm Steptoe & Johnson to become general counsel of a nascent BET nearly 25 years ago, she says she was driven more by an interest in communications law than building a business.
"More often than not it's trial by error to find out what you really like," Lee says. "Whether it's the industry, the company or the cause, you have to find something you're excited about so it's not work, it's more passion and fun."
As she worked on developing the company's subsidiaries, Lee found that passion in the challenge of building a network that was both a cultural and a corporate underdog.
In 1991, she played an instrumental role in taking BET public, making it the first African-American company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. She was at the helm of BET as president and COO when it went private again in 1998, and again in 2000 when BET was purchased by Viacom for $3 billion.
"I think it validated our audience and showed the value that executives have created at BET," Lee said of the acquisition. "But it meant that while we were developing our programming, we had to figure out the best way to raise capital and expand the company."
Lee's bridges extend well beyond corporate deal making. When she became chairman and CEO of BET Networks in 2005, she looked first to the needs of the community BET serves to face the challenge of program development. "The African-American community has always been unhappy about how they've been serviced by broadcasters. Every now and then there's been a Cosby Show, but there hasn't been a steady stream of programming targeted to the African-American community," Lee says.
In addition to expanding BET's platforms to mobile and enhancing content, including video and social media, on BET.com, Lee is overcoming the divide through research and focus groups, using the study "The African-American Reveal" to examine segments of BET's audience. "Our goal is to understand different viewpoints and what our audience wants," she says.
In September 2009, Lee oversaw the launch of Centric, a 24-hour entertainment network featuring programming that caters to older, more conservative African-Americans, or what the network calls "the multicultural adult." Centric now reaches more than 31 million households in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.
Lee's next ambition is to make original programming -particularly sitcoms-a staple of BET. And with two of them-The Game, resurrected after being cancelled by The CW in May 2009, and Let's Stay Together -slated to launch in January and a pilot, Read Between the Lines, up to bat, Lee and the network seem well on their way to meeting that goal. "I think they're going to be game-changers for BET. Hopefully, our Mad Men," Lee says.
"What I'm most impressed about with [her] is that she hasn't just used BET as a form of entertainment," says rapper-producer-entrepreneur Sean "Diddy" Combs. "She's used BET as a way to help to change the world. She's helped to break down the digital divide with BET.com. She's brought up issues of race and accountability. [Through original programming], she's broken down stereotypes and she's helped to elevate [the African-American community's] level of sophistication."
Lee admits that both race and gender continue to be issues within the entertainment industry as well as within the communities BET serves; her career has been underscored by her efforts to level both playing fields.
"She's a leader [who has] walked the delicate tightrope of managing a significant company [while] being very involved in the community, in organizing events about self-image and pride, and making sure women aren't discriminated against," adds CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who met Lee on the Washington political scene in the mid-1990s. "And anyone who has worked at BET under her leadership has seen the changes."
"When I deal with people at other companies, sometimes there's surprise that there's an African-American woman running the company," Lee says. "I think the industry has come a long way, but there's a lot of work that needs to be done. Since entertainment and communications are so important to the world and to our country, it's still very important to have a diverse group of voices [contributing to it]."
When it comes to narrowing the gap, Lee views BET as a "training ground" for minorities and women who are interested in the entertainment business.
"That's one of the most rewarding parts of working at BET-being able to hire young, smart executives who are really excited about contributing to the industry," she says. "This is a woman who wants to give back to the community," says Blitzer. "She doesn't just want to take."--Andrea Domanick