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Chairman & CEO, Black Entertainment Television: Debra Lee - Broadcasting & Cable

Chairman & CEO, Black Entertainment Television: Debra Lee

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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.”

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