Longtime BET Networks executive Debra Lee is stepping down as chairman and CEO after a more than 30-year career at the network.
Lee, who started with BET as a vice president and general counsel in 1986 and rose through the ranks before eventually being named president and CEO in 2005, will officially leave on May 28.
“Debra’s vision and creativity have cemented BET Networks as a premier network for African Americans and lovers of black culture,” said Viacom CEO Bob Bakish in a statement. “As BET continues to move forward, we will always be grateful to Debra for her leadership and commitment to creating top-notch entertainment that both entertains and empowers. Her passion for the BET brand has resulted in countless wins and has allowed BET to stay competitive in a growing media landscape.”
Lee said in a statement: “In 1986 I joined BET Networks to be its very first in-house counsel. As a young corporate attorney I saw my role as the protector of the BET brand and its employees and today, more than 32 years later, I still see myself as the protector and defender of a brand that I have helped to grow as a top destination for audiences across the globe.”
Under Lee’s tutelage, BET enjoyed record-breaking success, including the 2014 series premiere of The Game, the most-watched sitcom premiere in cable TV history with 7.68 million viewers, and the 2017 hit mini-series The New Edition Story, which brought in 28.4 million viewers from the initial run through subsequent encores, making it the highest-rated TV biopic of all time.
Lee also oversaw the launch of the network’s website, BET.com; developed BET Her, the first network for African-American women, and acquired television rights to Black Girls Rock. Other shows such as Being Mary Jane, The Real Husbands of Hollywood and In Contempt have helped BET Networks remain the most watched network group among African-American viewers for the past 17 years.
This past December, Lee handed day-to day duties of the African-American targeted network to BET Networks president Scott Mills.
Lee plans to stay involved in the media industry and continue her role on corporate and non-profit boards, according to Viacom officials.
Below is Lee’s full statement:
“In 1986 I joined BET Networks to be its very first in-house counsel. As a young corporate attorney I saw my role as the protector of the BET brand and its employees and today, more than 32 years later, I still see myself as the protector and defender of a brand that I have helped to grow as a top destination for audiences across the globe. I have called BET Networks home for over three decades and this team is part of my extended family.”
“In addition to the legacy I have built for BET Networks in the media landscape, I am also extremely proud of the legacy of values that I helped to instill at the network during my tenure. My belief that we can do well and do good has been a guiding principle and one that I hope you will continue after my departure. Together, we have built a world-class brand that connects with fans through the power of storytelling and we have attracted and nurtured top talent across the globe.”
“I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude to our parent company, Viacom, for their continued belief in the power of the BET brand and their unwavering support of my long and fulfilling career here. I would especially like to thank Bob Bakish for supporting me as I start the next chapter in this exciting journey.”
“I could not be prouder of the enormous amount of talent and creativity at BET Networks today and I will always be BET’s number one fan, rooting for each and every one of you as you continue to break barriers and share your authenticity with the world. I leave with pride, gratitude, and joy for a life-changing professional and personal journey. Continue to do it “for the culture” and much success to you all. You deserve it.”
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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