Johnson Hands BET Reins to Lee

Black Entertainment Television is now in the hands of Debra Lee, who will succeed founder Robert Johnson Thursday as CEO of the 25-year-old network, Johnson announced Wednesday.

Lee, formerly chief operating officer of the 80.6 million-subscriber company, will also assume the title of BET chairman following Johnson’s retirement in 2006.

Calling it an “exciting” day for the network, Johnson said he’s confident that the move is in the best interest of BET as a company and for 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,” Johnson said.

Lee also received a new “long-term” deal with Viacom Inc., and she will report directly to Viacom co-president Tom Freston.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled that Debra is taking the helm of BET, and I am confident that under her leadership, we’ll have a smart and smooth transition,” Freston said in a prepared statement.

“With nearly two decades of experience building a strong relationship with the African-American audience, I look forward to watching Debra make her mark and build on the great legacy of BET,” he added.

Lee said the network’s operations will continue to remain autonomous from MTV Networks despite the recent folding of the network’s affiliate-sales department into MTVN. Still, she added, BET is open to opportunities to work more closely with the other divisions.

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 is leaving the network is capable hands and in good shape financially, distributionwise and in terms of its relationship with the African-American community.

He added that the network has doubled its value since Viacom’s $3 billion purchase in 2000.

“I think BET is exactly where I hoped it would be -- it’s tied to a very dynamic media company, has terrific management and continued vision and focus on serving its core audience,” Johnson 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.