It’s not every corporate lawyer who gets to fulfill a dream of running a television network— especially lawyers who never really considered that television could be a career.
But that was the unique path forged by BET Networks chairman and CEO Debra L. Lee, who began her stint in 1986, coming over from the Washington, D.C., law firm of Steptoe & Johnson to join the nascent network as its first VP and general counsel.
“I’ve always been attracted to media,” said Lee, who earned her degree at Harvard Law School while simultaneously getting a master’s degree in public policy from the university’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “Did I envision a career in TV? No. I thought I was going to go into government and be assistant secretary of something.
“But I always wanted to make a difference to the black community and give back,” Lee added. “One of the things that attracted me to BET was that it was black-owned and focused on media. I always thought images of black people on TV were very important. I grew up in a household where, if a black person appeared on television, we were all called into the room. Working at BET is another way to give back to my community, just in a different way than I expected.”
Lee was brought on to BET by the network’s founder, Robert L. Johnson, who sold the company to Viacom in 2003 for $3 billion. Johnson now runs RLJ Companies, which invests in many different types of businesses.
“I saw in Debra someone who had a tremendous sense of integrity, character and an absolute commitment to be a part of something to which she could contribute and make a success,” Johnson said. “One day, somebody will write a true story about BET’s success, and if the author is telling the facts straight, that author would say that Bob Johnson founded BET, but Debra Lee made it what it is today.”
Lee’s latest chapter now includes a prestigious Tartikoff Legacy Award, to honor her contributions to the industry.
And the story keeps getting better, thanks to a great 2013 kickoff , courtesy of two new shows— The Real Husbands of Hollywood and Second Generation Wayans—which opened as the first- and second-ranked sitcom debuts, respectively, on cable so far this TV season.
The Real Husbands of Hollywood—a semi-scripted show based on skits Kevin Hart performed during the BET Awards—attracted a total audience of 6.5 million over two airings on Jan. 15. Second Generation Wayans—costarring Damien Dante Wayans and Craig Wayans—attracted a cumulative 4.7 million viewers over the course of that same night.
And still coming up later this year is the premiere of BET’s original movie Being Mary Jane. Starring Gabrielle Union, it is expected to launch in 2014 as BET’s first original drama series.
“Our mission at BET is to ‘respect, reflect and elevate’ our audience,” Lee said. “We want our content to be entertaining and we want people to watch, but we want to also resolve issues, inform people and have them feel passionate about what we are doing. With the growth of the black and Hispanic demographics and the re-election of our first African-American president, more people, including advertisers, are recognizing that this is a valuable segment of the marketplace.”
Lee had wanted to launch originals on BET, and thus start to grow the network in earnest, when she was named CEO in 2005. The strategy didn’t take off until BET’s relaunch of The Game, which it acquired after The CW canceled the series in 2009. BET aired its first episode of the show in January 2011, and it opened to a shocking 7.7 million viewers, setting the record for a cable comedy debut. On The CW, The Game had been averaging 1.5 million viewers.
“The Game was a gamechanger for us, pardon the pun,” Lee said. “I got flowers and congratulations from other people trying to create African-American programming, because they were so happy that The Game proved their case: If you do quality programming, the audience will show up.”
Abbe Raven, president and CEO of A&E Networks, who knows Lee from years of working together on the board of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and other industry activities, said Lee “has been instrumental in helping to build that brand from the beginning.”
“Debra is synonymous with BET,” Raven added. “She acknowledged that they needed to rebuild and rejuvenate that network and the brand, and then she really went at it in terms of…stepping up what they needed to do to be more contemporary.”
The success of The Game allowed BET to finally plunge headlong into its originals strategy, launching new series including the sitcom Let’s Stay Together, starring Nadine Ellis and Bert Belasco, and the reality show Tiny & Toya, about two women married to famous men.
BET also still pulls in big audiences for its longrunning music video show, 106th and Park, and for its many awards shows, including the BET Awards and BET Hip Hop Awards.
Last week, BET News spent a day covering the second inauguration of the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, in the network’s own Beltway backyard.
“Debra Lee has turned BET into the legacy that I hoped it would become,” Johnson said. “I can’t think of another person that I would rather have running a business that would define the legacy of a network committed to providing compelling and informative entertainment to African- and urban- Americans, and all Americans who are interested in diversity of entertainment.”