Recently inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame, Debra L. Lee is one of this country’s most respected business executives. As Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BET Networks, the leading media and entertainment company aimed at African-Americans, she is one of the highest ranking African-American women at the media giant Viacom Inc. A graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School, Lee played a key role in taking BET public in 1991. Prior to her appointment as CEO in March 1996, Lee served as the network’s executive vice president of strategic business development. In 2003, Lee was given the Distinguished Vanguard Award for Leadership from the National Cable Television Association, making her the first African-American female executive to receive the honor. Under her leadership, BET continues to bring quality programming to our audience of 89 million households.
“Debra has prepared BET for the next 30 years,” says Kevin Liles, founder of talent management firm KWL Enterprises, who has worked with Lee for two decades. “She’s a strong, spirited executive who empowers the people around her” and has navigated “the ups and downs of an ever-changing industry, while changing the face of BET.”
Lee says her mantra for keeping the company at the top of its game is “respect, reflect, elevate,” and it’s working. According to Nielsen, BET ranks among the top 20 cable networks, and it’s No. 1 across all key demos for African-Americans. Two hallmark events in 2014 played major roles in sustaining that reign. The 14th annual BET Awards on June 29 with first-time host Chris Rock ranked as the No. 1 cable program that night, drawing 7.9 million total viewers — up from 7.6 million in 2013 — and generating 11 million tweets. That same weekend, the second BET Experience, a music and lifestyle fest in Los Angeles, attracted 112,488 visitors, a 10 percent increase over its inaugural effort. BET also scored a new hit series in 2014, Being Mary Jane, starring Gabrielle Union. Ahead for 2015: BET’s first mini-series, an adaptation of the novel The Book of Negroes, and the formal rebranding of its sister channel Centric as the first black women’s network. International growth is another priority. BET airs in 29 African countries and boasts a U.K. audience of 14 million. Says Lee: “It’s important that our programming reflects what we stand for and what we do as a brand.”