Black Entertainment Television was long castigated for videos that demeaned African-American women. From her richly decorated office overlooking New York’s theater district, BET Networks Chairman and Chief Executive Debra Lee sits down with me to explain how she’s now trying to attract—without offending—a bigger black audience.
Forbes: The audience for BET, a Viacom unit, is at an all-time high, thanks to more original programming. BET’s The Game premier was cable TV’s highest-ranking sitcom, with 7.7 million viewers. Why did you decide to invest in original shows?
Debra Lee: When I became CEO I had to define my vision for the company. How do we make our brand distinct and compete with other networks? I realized it was time to focus on original programming. BET was mature enough. Our new brand strategy: We respect, reflect and elevate our audience. They want to be entertained, but they also want to be inspired.
You’ve been criticized for displaying derogatory images of minorities, especially black women, and even had picketers protesting at your house several years ago. How exactly are you using programming to ‘elevate’ your audience?
For awhile we went too hard-edge. We had a lot of criticism when we were primarily airing music videos, which a lot of people felt were derogatory towards women. We heard that loud and clear. We started BET Honors to shine a light on people doing great things in the community and Black Girls Rock!, which is basically an all-women show. Our programming filter now is: It has to have a message, can’t be derogatory and has to show positive images. That doesn’t mean that it’s unreal or fake. We’re not going to be the PBS of black television. We still have to get ratings.
How do you create content for an audience that spans age groups, economic brackets and political leanings, united only by race?
It’s an interesting audience, and it’s hard to target. The black audience is not monolithic. [It] sets the trends, so it’s important for us to stay on the cutting edge. Yet this is a very conservative community at the same time. Family is important. A show we have coming up, Reed Between the Lines, is about a working mom and an English professor who have three beautiful kids. It’s a reinvention of The Cosby Show. The Game is a peek into the lives of athletes and the women they are involved with. It deals with relationships and issues that we all go through.
How did you find your way to BET?
I went to Brown and majored in political science with an emphasis in Chinese communist ideology. I shorten it to Asian politics because that always throws people off. It was the ‘70s. Then I went to Harvard Law School and at the same time got a Master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School. I went to Washington to clerk for a judge for a year, and then Ronald Reagan won. I didn’t want to go into a Republican administration, so I went to a big law firm to hide out until the Democrats came back.
That took 12 years, [so] after five, I didn’t want to stay at the law firm, and BET was a client. BET was about five or six years old, and [its founder] Bob Johnson asked me to come over and start the legal department. The rest is history, as they say.
What is like to work for you?
It’s very collaborative. I don’t like to micromanage other people’s departments. If you hear me coming up with programming ideas, it’s a bad day at BET because that’s not what I do. Over time I have learned to trust my gut and say, ‘That sounds like a wacky idea. I don’t think it’s going to work.’
As one of very few black, female CEOs do you feel a burden of responsibility for the images you display?
I don’t see it as a burden [anymore]. I accept the responsibility. Black women in particular don’t get to see themselves enough as role models. In terms of my own personal life and how I can give back, that’s one of the things I’m proudest of.
I was born the year of Brown v. Board of Education. I went to an all-black public high school. I was able to leave that and go to Brown and Harvard and be successful, and now I run a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. I’m so lucky to be part of these times when we have an African-American president, and to be able to encourage young people to believe that they can do anything.
You’re also a mother of two. My guess is that, at times, it’s been a tad stressful for you.
I just had one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I gave the commencement speech at my daughter’s graduation from Sidwell Friends High School in Washington, D.C. It still gives me chills. I used to go to parent-teacher conferences, fearing the teacher would say, ‘Oh your kids are doing horribly because you travel too often and work too much.’ You have all this guilt about being a working mom. So I’m the one always running in late, having taken the red eye to make the holiday parade. Having gone through all this anxiety for 16 years with two kids and at the last minute being asked to give the speech was very gratifying. Maybe I haven’t blown it all.