Multiethnic TV Awards: BET's Lee Tells Competitors to 'Bring It On'

CEO Says Competition Has Made BET a Better Programmer

New York -- BET chairman and CEO Debra Lee has a message for networks shooting at the programmer’s leadership position among African-American audiences: "Bring it on."

Lee, speaking at the inaugural Multiethnic TV Leadership Awards here Wednesday morning presented by Multichannel News and B&C, said it makes sense that such dedicated networks like TV One, OWN, Aspire and Bounce and services like WeTV, Bravo and GMC with shows targeting African-Americans are taking aim at BET's audience.

“It’s smart for the others. You can’t be in this business and ignore Latinos and African-Americans,” she said, noting their growth in audience, influence and spending power.

However, the proliferation of competitors has served to make BET better, according to Lee, who on April 16 celebrated her 27th anniversary with the company.

She recalled that when plans for TV One were announced a decade ago, she called then Viacom executive Mel Karmazin, and said ‘We have competition.’ He replied, ‘Competition makes the leader stronger.’ " Lee continued by saying that "BET has a great story to tell. We have programming that is being executed at a high level. We love competition. Bring it on.”

Asked by Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead what her vision was when she became CEO seven years ago, Lee quickly pointed to the addition of more original programming. “It was important for us to own our content. We’ve been focused on that.”

She also noted that brand strategy research has been key for BET and sister service Centric, with the three precepts of “respect, reflect and elevate, informing the company’s programming, marketing and pro-social campaigns.”

Those elements, emphasized during the company’s upfront presentation to advertisers,  has helped forge “emotional connections” to BET and Centric. "We have more connections with the audience than Style, Bravo, We, TV One. OWN. They’re all going after our audience, but our ratings are higher than ever.”

Looking ahead, Lee wants the network to continue to produce more original fare and “be ahead of the curve” as to whatever’s next, saying one of the challenges for BET is to be “anywhere and everywhere” its audience is now and heading down the road. “It’s cable,, digital platforms, mobile, social media, Twitter, Instagram. We encourage our talent to part of [social media] and it helps. Kevin Hart has 7 million followers and that’s a plus for Real Husbands of Hollywood.” Lee said she was just at MIP, pitching the reality show parody internationally.

Looking five years out, Lee said it always has been her goal for BET to be known as “the best content creation network for African-Americans audiences. As our audience grows, our power will grow to continue making award-winning programming." She said there will be more sitcoms, more dramas and telefilms.

"We'll keep doing more of what we’re doing, and world domination," Lee concluded with a laugh, "starting with the Real Husbands of Hollywood."