Three decades is a mighty long timeto be in any industry, which makes Debra L. Lee, 58, chairman/CEO of BET Networks, even more of a wonder to behold, having survived and thrived while building the leading cable TV network targeting African-Americans. “I grew up with a small room and a little record player playing The Supremes, The Temptations and James Brown on 45s,” says the former law clerk and Brown University graduate, who joined BET in 1986 as a vice president and general counsel. “Music was so fun and inspirational. Here I am, 29 years later, still at BET and able to showcase those musical artists that are still so important to our young people and to our history.”
During Lee’s tenure, she has seen the channel transform from a quiet corner for niche programming to a cultural pillar and powerhouse brand within the Viacom family. Marquee events like the BET Awards, established in 2001 and set to air June 29 live from Los Angeles, have made BET must-see TV and, to boot, there’s the BET Experience — a multiday gathering of artists, fans and influencers offering panels and concerts as a lead-up to the awards finale. The recent Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame inductee invited Billboard into her New York office.
Billboard: What are some of your favorite BET Awards moments?
Debra Lee: One is when Michael Jackson paid tribute to James Brown [in 2003]. It was a surprise, so when he came out and put a cape on James Brown, I remember Puffy was sitting across the aisle from me; he ran across and said, “Right now you’re all kicking MTV’s butt.” It was a such a moment.
Another is last year’s tribute to Charlie Wilson. When Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg and Pharrell [Williams] were onstage dancing. At that moment, I thought, “I could drop the mic and walk away now.” That moment — a tribute to someone who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves but has been on everybody’s record — still gives me chills. It represents the diversity that I want to show on BET. ... where you’re like, “Wow, I can’t get this anywhere else.” People come to expect that now.
Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake performing with Charlie Wilson in 2013 at the BET Awards
You clerked for a federal judge before joining BET. What philosophies that you learned then do you find yourself still applying now?
Most importantly, a sense of fairness and justice — that’s why I went to law school. I grew up in the civil rights era and we were fighting to be able to sit at lunch counters and integrate schools. I ended up at a big law firm in Washington [D.C.] and had a small client called BET. I’ve maintained that sense of justice at BET, and our brand strategy is to respect, reflect and elevate our audience. Trayvon Martin or the Million Man March or the first O.J. Simpson interview that we did — no one else would give O.J. a voice. Now, whether or not you believe he’s guilty, we felt he deserved to tell his story. People didn’t have to watch, but he deserved a platform.
The BET Experience comes just weeks before the Essence Music Festival on Fourth of July weekend. Both offer major African-American performers. Do you look at it as competition?
There’s room for both of us. Essence has been around forever, and they have very loyal fans who will go to the fest in New Orleans. Our festival is in Los Angeles, and we get the majority of people from Southern California. We appeal to very different audiences. Essence seems more about women empowerment and has a slightly older audience, where those who are BET-focused are into younger music and hip-hop. There are a lot of festivals out there now — Jay Z has Made in America; there’s Coachella; there’s Trillectro, which is half hip-hop, half EDM. Now that artists don’t make as much off record sales, concerts are their bread and butter. They’re happy to have more and a variety.
You have upped original programming 50 percent?
It’s probably more than that. Since I became CEO, one of my missions was to do more original programming and improve the quality, and we’ve done that by getting into sitcoms. We’re very committed to it. Luckily, we got into it before a lot of other cable networks, but now everyone is realizing you have to have original programming to attract an audience. In addition to that, we have our tentpoles, which we invest a lot of money in, from the BET Hip Hop Awards to the awards this weekend to "Black Girls Rock" to "BET Honors" and "Celebration of Gospel." These shows are important to our audience and allow us to reach folks who don’t always get the tribute they deserve from other networks.
"Real Husbands of Hollywood" was born of a BET Awards skit. Now star Kevin Hart claims the No. 1 movie, the latest in a string of successes.
He’s on his fifth No. 1 movie? Kevin is a great businessman and knows his value. "Think Like a Man Too" demonstrates the power of the African-American audience. Well-written black movies do very well. Other film studios should take note.
Chris Brown has been a controversial figure for years. When Michael Jackson died in 2009, Brown was in the midst of his assault trial and you didn’t allow him to honor Jackson at the BET Awards. In 2010, he performed a tribute but Brown has been in trouble ever since. What’s your stance on inviting him back?
People deserve a second chance. After he had done his service and his time, we, as a team, decided it’s OK to have Chris back, and let’s see how the audience feels ... I try to make the best decisions for my audience, and everybody may not agree, but I look at things from all sides. It gets back to fairness and justice. I felt that first year, it would have been the wrong signal to young girls if we allowed him back so quickly. A year later, it felt like he had paid his dues. It’s a case-by-case thing; you can’t make across-the-board rules about it. It’s one thing to give someone a platform, it’s another to give an award for being a great person. We want people to change and do better, and hopefully Chris Brown is at that point now.