Johnson Hands BET Reins to Lee

Black Entertainment Television is now in the hands of Debra Lee, who last Thursday succeeded network founder Robert L. Johnson as CEO of the 25-year old network. 

Lee, formerly COO of the 80.6 million-subscriber service, will also assume the title of BET chairman following Johnson’s retirement next year. Calling it an “exciting” day for the network, Johnson said he’s confident the move is in the best interest of BET as a company and in terms of its legacy.

“I could not have chosen a better chief executive and outstanding leader to succeed me at BET than Debra Lee, and that’s what makes this announcement so important to me and positive for BET’s future,” said Johnson. 

Lee also receives a new “long-term” deal with Viacom, which bought BET for $3 billion in 2000, and will report directly to Viacom Inc. co-president Tom Freston.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled that Debra is taking the helm of BET and am confident that, under her leadership, we’ll have a smart and smooth transition,” Freston said. “She’s smart, she knows that business, she’s well-connected and she certainly has the enthusiasm and ambition to take over the network.”

Both Freston and Lee said BET’s operations will continue to remain autonomous from MTV Networks, despite the recent folding of BET’s affiliate sales department into MTVN.

“BET is a strong company that has its own identity, its own separate culture, and it’s doing a great job,” added Freston.

Nevertheless, Lee added the network is open to opportunities to work more closely with the other divisions.

One area Lee is looking to make a major impact is in the development of original programming. The network in April announced several new original reality shows and plans to roll out a new-series launch every quarter.

“We’ve committed a lot of resources and efforts into original programming,” she said. “You will see us continue to do more original programming.”

The move officially ends Johnson’s tenure at the network he founded in 1980. Johnson, whose current five-year contract with Viacom expires at the end of 2005, said he’s leaving it in capable hands and in good shape financially, distribution-wise and in terms of its relationship with the African-American community. He said the network has doubled in value since Viacom’s $3 billion purchase in 2000.

“I think BET is exactly where I hoped it would be — tied to a very dynamic media company, terrific management and continued vision and focus on serving its core audience,” he said. “It couldn’t be a better time to exit.”

R. Thomas Umstead

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.