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Lee to Succeed Johnson at BET

BET founder Robert L. Johnson has relinquished his post as CEO of the black-targeted network, making way for longtime number-two Debra Lee to succeed him.

Johnson will remain chairman of the Viacom division until he retires in January. Lee will then become both chairman and CEO.

Lee said her focus will be producing more originals – the mix of music, entertainment and comedy shows and specials that currently does the heavy lifting for the network.

College Hill, which just finished its second season, will probably return next year as will other reality fare (Fatty Koo and The Interns are slated for this summer). BET is also hunting for new syndicated shows like The Parkers, Girlfriends and Soul Food which it acquired from co-owned Paramount.

As BET told advertisers at its upfront presentation, it is dropping its 11 p.m. half-hour BET Nightly News  in favor of spreading the information out. The network has assembled a task force to discuss alternate news options, including weekend news magazines, Lee said.

BET has taken heat over the years for easing off on news in favor of music programming. “Our goal is to continue to provide news and information in the best way for our audience,” Lee said.

The network, which turned 25 in January, has begun a search for a new head of programming.  Lee would not name a frontrunner.

Lee said she will also focus on BET’s ancillary businesses – aiming to grow distribution for 10-year-old BET Jazz as well as increase’s presence.

She is also exploring wireless opportunities and talking with cable operators about VOD and broadband.“BET is such a great brand it makes sense to keep expanding,” she said. “It’s a very exciting time.”

Lee, 50, first joined BET as vice president and general counsel in 1986. She later served as president of BET’s publishing division and was named president and COO in 1996.

Viacom bought BET for $2.5 billion in 2001, but has kept it a separate division rather than folding it into MTV Networks. That is expected to remain the case in a further realignment of the company's divisions expected within the next month or so.

BET remains based in Washington and MTVN only handles affiliate sales.

Programming, marketing and ad sales are all handled by BET itself. The company says that structure will continue even after Johnson steps down.