Black Entertainment Television CEO Debra Lee served as co-chair at the 2008 Cable Show, which just wrapped up in New Orleans. That’s where Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead spoke to Lee about the industry’s Cable Cares initiatives and contributions to rebuilding the Crescent City. In a separate interview, Lee discussed the industry’s diversity efforts, as well as BET and its future prospects. An edited transcript follows
MCN: How important is it for the cable industry to hold its convention in New Orleans and to give back to the city through the Cable Cares initiative?
Debra Lee: It’s great to be back in New Orleans … the cable industry grew up here and for us to come together as an industry to give something back to the city has been great. There have been several [Cable Cares] projects from building playgrounds to putting TV equipment into schools to feeding the hungry, so it’s really great to see the cable industry pull together like this and it was a great way to kick off the show.
MCN: Where would you say the industry is in terms of its diversity efforts, both on the screen and in the executive ranks?
DL: I think there’s still a lot of work to be done on the diversity issue in the cable industry. From my work on the NCTA [board] and with other groups from NAMIC to Women In Cable Telecommunications to the Kaitz Foundation, we’ve had a lot of success in terms of diversity and you can point to quite a few success stories. But the fact that I’m the first African-American chair [of the Cable Show] in this day and time is not a good testament to this industry … I’m proud to be [the first] but we need to push harder. So I think there does need to be more focus on the executive ranks.
We should make sure that it’s not just at BET, but at other networks and especially on the cable operator side that there are more opportunities for minorities in the executive ranks. We just have to continue to work harder at it. We’re a young industry, and there’s really no excuse for diversity not to be front and center.
I hope the industry stays committed to Kaitz, NAMIC, Women In Cable [Telecommunications] and Emma Bowen — the organizations that have been around for a long time and have been fighting this battle. I don’t want anyone to think their job is over … it’s an ongoing fight and something that we have to keep front and center.
MCN: With regards to BET, what are your expectations this year for the network?
DL: We have lots of new original programming coming on board, and we have lots of returning hits — this year was a great one for us in terms of launching the most new shows ever, and to bring those successful shows back is a great thing.
We announced at least four new shows at our recent upfront, everything from 106 and Gospel to [animated series] Black Panther — a partnership with Marvel Comics which we’re very excited about.
We’re also pushing our digital offerings. As our digital platforms work more closely with our programming division, you’ll see a lot more convergence on that front.