The chairperson and CEO of BET (Black Entertainment Television) said Tuesday that the network responded to criticism that it relied too heavily on sexually-charged and violent music videos by changing its format to emphasize programming that “respects, reflects and elevates” the black community.
“We feel a huge responsibility to our community, so we always think of ourselves as more than an entertainment network,” Debra Lee said at Wake Forest University. “So much of what we do is trying to respect our community and elevate it in a way that no one else does.”
The network’s new direction translated to an increase in ratings, thanks to scripted originals such as the “Real Husbands of Hollywood” and the successful reincarnation of the CW Network’s “The Game.” The network deliberately avoids what Lee refers to as “train wreck” reality shows. Upholding the company’s sense of purpose and responsibility is a constant balancing act, Lee related.
“I hate saying no,” she confessed. “But I learned how to say no, to Kanye, to Rihanna, to whoever made these videos that weren’t appropriate to air… It’s a hard balance to strike, but once you define your vision and what you want to do, it does force you to stand a little taller and say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to do that.’”
Lee was the first guest speaker of the 2013-14 WFU Schools of Business Broyhill Executive Lecture Series. Steve Reinemund, dean of the WFU Schools of Business, led his longtime friend in conversation that delved into her nearly 30-year long career at BET.
“She’s guided BET’s reinvigorated approach, based on several principles that are important to her: supporting families, embracing and supporting dreams, and latching onto the freshest talent,” Reinemund said.
Lee forged her way with a strong foundation in education. She earned her undergraduate degree at Brown University and a master’s and juris doctorate from Harvard.
“I thought really in terms of law being a way to change the world,” she revealed. “…I was going to go to law school to make the world a better place.”
The daughter of a military family, Lee spent the latter portion of her childhood in Greensboro, where she attended Dudley High School and later the Governor’s School at Salem College.
Her journey to success was long and winding, Lee said, and included stints as a legal clerk and an attorney at a Washington, D.C. law firm before she entered the world of communications.
“I didn’t plan this at all. It just was organic; it kind of worked out,” said Lee, who was invited by BET Founder Robert Johnson to become the network’s first general counsel in 1986. [pullquote]“…I learned that I loved business, and I learned that I loved BET.”[/pullquote]
The network grew quickly, and five years later became the first black-owned company to be publicly traded in the New York Stock Exchange. Lee said she remembers that as one of the best days of her career; the company’s shares jumped from $17 to $28.29 in their first day, she reported. BET was acquired by media giant Viacom 12 years ago. In 2004, Johnson exited the company and Lee was elevated to chair and CEO.
Managing her duties as a parent and a corporate executive was another challenge Lee had to stare down. The mother of two said she made many cross-country flights to be in attendance at school plays and other important moments in her children’s lives.
“I always tried to be there, but my kids understood at an early age that I had a very demanding career,” she said, noting that both of her children – now grown-ups– are considering careers in the music industry. “…I think if you’re passionate about what you do and your children feel that, they’ll appreciate what you do and respect you for it.”
Atlanta native Brooke Brown, who recently started a two year fellowship at the university, said the vibrancy and passion for her work that Lee exuded resonated with her.
“Just enjoy what you do – it shows,” said the Howard University alumna. “It shows with her for sure.”
Jason Webster, president of the Schools of Business Student Government Association, said he hopes to follow in Lee’s footsteps someday.
“I actually plan on starting my own media company so it was kind of cool being here,” said Webster, who envisions building a business-focused network with the young professional in mind. “I always love listening to business leaders and having the opportunity to have their brains picked and hear some of their stories.”