Black Entertainment Television has been a staple in the nation's capital since its 1979 launch and has become one of the more recognizable and important businesses in Washington. Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead talked to BET CEO Debra Lee about the advantages and disadvantages of conducting business in D.C.
MCN: How important is it for BET to be established in D.C.?
Debra Lee: It's just so fabulous for the BET brand to say we're in Washington and we're part of the presence here, particularly now with the new administration. This president understands our audience and wants to have a connection to it. He appeared on 106 and Park via video conference near the end of the election, but he's been very open to doing things with us because he wants to connect with our audience. Now more than ever it's just more exciting - I've been to the White House a number of times since the new administration took over and there's an excitement and a sense of that we haven't seen here in a while.
D.C. is the necca of black culture, so to be the home of BET for this long period of time has been terrific.
Being in Washington also allows me to be able to support the cable industry's positions on the Hill. I'm on the NCTA board, so it's always helpful to have companies in D.C. so when they go lobby they have people close by. MSO and programming CEOs come in all the time, but as one of the few companies in D.C., we're on the ready to go when needed. [The NCTA] has already taken the opportunity to build deeper relationships with the White House. I feel, as a CEO in the cable industry, that lobbying and being interested in policy and what affects my company and my audience is part of my job. Being able do that is easier when you're in D.C.
MCN: Do you have a rapport with President Obama and his administration?
DL: I'm very supportive of this president - have been very early on. He called me early on when he was thinking about running for the presidency - I had supported him during his Senate race. So I felt very connected to him and I want to be helpful to the president. He wants to hear from different voices - and not always ones that support him - so his administration has invited me to share my opinion on certain issues.
Being able to walk around the White House under this administration offers me the best of both worlds: I'm able to run BET and do what we need to do as a company to service our audience, but I'm also able to hopefully have input on policy, and the only reason I'm able to do that is because we're located in Washington.
MCN: How has being in D.C. impacted the development of content on BET?
DL: Initially we had concerns about attracting talent - which is mostly based out of New York and Los Angeles - to D.C. But there are op-portunities to reach out to those lawmakers here in D.C. for our content. We certainly were very aggressive with our coverage of the presiden-tial election and with our inauguration coverage.
I also started BET Honors a couple of years ago because I wanted us to have a show presence in D.C. This year we were able to kick off the inaugural weekend with this fabulous uplifting program, which not only people in Washington but everyone who was in town for the inaugu-ration was interested in getting tickets to.
Also Mayor [Adrian] Fenty and the city have been supportive - they like having [BET Honors] in D.C. and have been very cooperative in helping us establish BET Honors as a true stable of D.C. culture. It's become one of the hottest events in D.C. on par with the Kennedy Center honors in terms of the talent we're able to attract and the publicly surrounding it.
MCN: Are there any plans to develop other programming from the nation's capital?
DL: We will continue to cover the White House vigorously, as we did leading up to the presidential election. We haven't finalized plans but it will continue to involve [BET News personality] Jeff Johnson and our White House correspondents. One thing we will do is create some more town hall meetings and there are so many people in the administration and on the Hill that people would love to hear from. So I'm sure we'll be doing more specials and figure out what the best weekly news show is or how best to cover it, whether it's through [BET.com] or on BET.
When BET first thought about building a studio, we thought about building it in Prince Georges County or Virginia, but it just didn't feel right. There's something about being in Washington, D.C., and I'm even happier now that we stayed in D.C. As we approach our 30th anniversary and you look back at our history, I think D.C. has been a very important part of that.