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So What Do You Do, Debra Lee, Chairwoman and CEO of BET?

This lawyer turned media mogul says BET stands for more than just videos

By Janelle Harris - January 5, 2011
The marriage between Debra Lee and Black Entertainment Television has been a professional mash-up of two standouts. On one side, one of the few African-American women to head a multi-million dollar media brand; on the other, the first Black cable network and the first Black company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Yet, like most high profile partnerships, the union was beleaguered with baggage aplenty. The 30-year-old network has been publicly mollywhopped for its stereotypical representation of Black folks, (particularly women), a lineup too reliant on music programming, and "selling out" after it was purchased by Viacom in 2001.

But Lee isn't trying to rerun that drama-filled past. For the past five years, she and her team have diligently rolled out a new plan set to change the dynamic of the network's content, adding original programming and solution-based reality shows to deliver a more well-rounded portrayal of Black America to its 89 million viewing households. Factor in the rebranding of BETJ as Centric, a new channel targeting the 25-54 crowd, and the acquisition of the legendary Soul Train brand to round out Lee's buildup of new offerings. On the heels of BET's acclaimed special Black Girls Rock, the recent Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame inductee talks frankly about Black TV, the Obama administration and why reality shows aren't always pretty.

Name: Debra Lee
Position: Chairwoman and CEO, BET Networks
Resume: Served as law clerk to the late Honorable Barrington Parker of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Spent five years as corporate attorney with D.C. law firm Steptoe & Johnson. Joined Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1986 as general counsel and vice president of legal affairs, assuming additional responsibilities and titles including publisher of BET's magazine division, president and chief operating officer, until she was named chairwoman and chief executive officer in 2005.
Birthdate: August 8
Hometown: Greensboro, NC
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science from Brown University, a master's from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a JD from Harvard Law School.
Marital status: Divorced
First section of the Sunday Times: Style
Favorite TV show: Two and a Half Men
Guilty pleasure: Shopping
Last book read: "I can't admit to the last book that I read." [laughs]
Twitter handle: "I don't Twitter. I have a hard enough time keeping up with email. I figure if I want to be in touch with people, I'm in touch with them already."

You've said that you wanted to create a brand identity for BET using original programming, but the network has launched a heavy rotation of reality shows as part of its regular lineup. How do you think these shows reflect on BET? Do you have any plans for original scripted shows?
Well, there are two types of reality shows. There are observational reality shows and then there's the competitive kind, whether it's a singing competition or whatever. We've done both kinds. The observational ones can vary according to who you're focusing on -- we try to focus on positive people. We have Family Crews, which is like a modern-day Cosby Show, very family oriented. But then we have Tiny & Toya, who may have issues personally or in their family, but we kind of help them and make that part of the show. We want to make sure that we show real life through reality shows and real life is not always positive. But if it's not positive, we try to help the stars get to a place where they can solve their problems, like on the Keyshia Cole show. Frankie [Cole's mother] had some drug issues that we helped her work with. So it can be tricky because sometimes on reality shows, the ones that do the best are the train wrecks and we try to stay away from that as we build our new brand strategy, where we're trying to inspire and motivate folks. But there are issues in real life and you have to deal with those if you're following someone 24 hours a day.

In terms of scripted shows, we're bringing back The Game, which everyone is very excited about. And then we have another show that we're doing with Queen Latifah's production company called Let's Stay Together, which is about two sisters and their romantic relationships and their relationship with each other. Then there's a third that I just greenlit called Read Between the Lines with Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. There's already been a lot of buzz about all of them. So we're still going to continue doing reality but we are moving heavily into the scripted area. There is a lot of talent in Black Hollywood -- producers, directors and actors -- who want to work and it's something that our audience has been asking for for a long time.

Your original plan was to take your background in law and work in the White House. If you were a part of the Obama administration, what capacity would you like to be working with him?
My original plan wasn't necessarily to get to the White House, but go into government. Unfortunately, when I started practicing law in Washington, Ronald Reagan won and I didn't want to go into a Republican administration. Republicans stayed in office for 12 years. So during that time, I stayed at a law firm for five years, got tired of doing that and eventually went in-house to BET as general counsel and I've been having so much fun at BET for the past 25 years that I haven't thought about leaving.

"I've been working very hard to change people's impression of BET and it's working."

But if I was a little bit younger, I would've jumped at the chance to go into this administration, though I think from my position at BET, I've been very helpful to the President. We're able to do a lot by encouraging our audience to get out and vote, so I'm very proud of what we accomplished during his campaign. I kind of like the vantage point I have. I'm in Washington; I run the biggest Black media company in existence; I have the most well-known brand. So, I think I can be most helpful from this perspective and vantage point than I could by working in the White House.

BET has come under fire for its negative representations of Black women. You recently participated in a two-day summit that laid these issues on the line. Why did you initiate this discussion? What do you think is fair or unfair about those accusations?
A lot of that criticism was brought about by hip-hop videos and the problems people were having with the images in them. We're not as much into music videos as we used to be -- we only have one or two shows left as we get more into original programming. I've been working very hard to change people's impression of BET and it's working. There's no criticism of BET that I know of right now in terms of our images of women. I mean, how can you watch Black Girls Rock, which got over three million viewers, and see all of those young women in the audience and the women we honored from Ruby Dee to KeKe Palmer to Raven Symone and say that we're not showing positive images of Black women? The ratings for BET are going up. We had our best year ever in 2009 and 2010 was better, so it's hard to say that people aren't watching because they're not getting what they want.

Now the reason that I had that Leading Women Defined Conference is that I wanted Black women to be able to come together and talk about other issues, including education, healthcare, and how we go green as a community. My thought was to invite the 100 most powerful Black women I know to Washington so they could interact with the powerful Black women we have in this administration, including Valerie Jarrett and Melody Barnes. We had a panel on images of Black women. That's something we should continue to talk about, but we have other issues. We can't ignore the healthcare reform, what's happening in our community with HIV and AIDS or the mental health issues that our young people -- and mature folks -- are dealing with. This is a time to make our voices heard.

"How can you watch Black Girls Rock and say that we're not showing positive images of Black women?"

What plans do you have to rebuild your news offerings?
We're doing more news on, because that's where young people today want to get their news. They don't want to wait for an 11 PM news show anymore. I was talking to my 17-year-old daughter and I told her we're bringing back news and she said, 'Why would you have news on BET? Everyone gets their news online.' So we have to keep up with this generation and give them the news where they get it first, whether that's mobile, online or on their iPads, and then hopefully give them a deeper perspective with Ed Gordon's weekly show. So we're heavily into news, more so than any other Black network, and always have been because when something happens in our community, our audience wants to be able to come to BET first and get our perspective and voice their own perspective.

When Bob Johnson retired and turned the reigns over to you in 2005, you had already played a major part in taking BET from a small company to a billion dollar operation. Were you watching him like, 'I'll do this, this and this differently when I'm CEO?'
When I became CEO after Bob left, I had to ask myself what did I want my legacy to be. A couple of years after I took over, we went over the branding strategy because we were starting to have competition in the Black programming space, and we really needed to better define who we were and what we were going to do and what we weren't going to do. So I didn't walk into the role knowing what I wanted to accomplish. I knew some things, but I also wanted to learn from our focus groups, learn from our audience and take my experience from the past 20 years at BET and decide the next area that I wanted to go into. It's an evolving thing.

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Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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