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Q&A With BET's Debra Lee

Inside Viacom, BET Networks is something of a rising star.
Fresh off a stellar second quarter, thanks to stratospheric ratings for its BET Awards show, the cable network is
busy developing new original programming on its flagship while teeing up a
second service and rolling out internationally. Debra L. Lee, chairman and CEO of BET Networks, talks with B&C's
Claire Atkinson about new original programming, the cultural importance
of Michael Jackson, and branding BET in the age of Obama.


BET's ratings were up 34% in the second quarter of '09. To what do you
attribute that rise? 

We've made a lot of strategic moves that have contributed to
our ratings growth. Loretha Jones joined us last year as the president of
original programming, and Barbara Zaneri joined us as our head of programming,
scheduling, strategy and acquisitions. Together they have made our programming
and scheduling even smarter in a number of ways - from strengthening Tuesday
nights, to moving our hit gospel competition series Sunday Best to
Sundays, to using our returning franchises to help launch new shows, to
programming our dayparts in better ways. There is more flow to the schedule,
and we have made great acquisitions, including The Game.  We have
also acquired movies including Training Day and The Matrix; we're
doing movies three times a week now.  

Our ratings growth is a result of our original programming,
and we have even more series in the pipeline. We have a nightly talk show with
Mo'Nique, starting in October, called The
Mo'Nique Show
. We also recently added The Wendy Williams Show to our
nightly line-up--it airs earlier in the day on Fox. We also have another new
show about singer Monica that follows her comeback in the music world. Her show
will be called Monica.

We are also partnering with NASCAR on Changing Lanes,
which chronicles the search for the sport's next generation of drivers. We're
looking at the changing face of NASCAR. It is something we are excited about.

The BET Awards
obviously did a lot better this year coming right after the death of Michael
Jackson. Tell us about how that came together? 

We had 10.65 million viewers tune in (live + same day),
which makes the BET Awards the number
one show on cable so far this year.  The number of viewers who tuned in to
see the awards is a testament to Michael Jackson's far-reaching and long-lasting
influence and legacy. It was really the first time people could express
themselves about Michael, so the emotion really came through.  

It also gave us the chance to promote other shows like
[reality series] Tiny and Toya. We premiered it after the BET Awards ended
at 12:45 a.m., and it became the number one original series in our network
history. Coca-Cola sponsored a red room, where we had actor Idris Elba
deejaying. [Our advertisers] see the value in having great talent on

Generally our BET Awards rate highly. The sponsors
and partners for this year's show included
Pepsi, Procter & Gamble's Cover
and My Black Is Beautiful,
Twitter, Kmart, Lincoln,
Ford, KFC Pride 360, Yahoo! Music and Grey Goose Vodka. It was the No. 1 telecast
in cable television history among African-Americans. Stephen Hill, [president
of music programming and specials] oversees the show every year.  

How did this year's show come together?  

Michael Jackson's death really changed it. Stephen and the
team had to change just about everything only two days before, because we, of
course, wanted to have the performers do Michael Jackson tributes as best we
could in a limited time frame.  Michael really created the song book for a
generation. There hasn't been another entertainer like him, and I don't think
there ever will be another person who comes close to making the impact he had
on pop music. 

Concert promoter AEG Live is negotiating to sell footage of the last
Michael Jackson performance. Is BET interested? 

We'd be interested; it's a little expensive, though. You
know, one of my favorite memories of Michael was when I had a reception for him
at my home. About 250 people came and he was perfectly charming and chatted
about the business. He stood on a receiving line and he took pictures with
everyone there.  

I'm glad I had the chance to meet him. His only request was
for bowls of Skittles. I've never seen grown people push each other out of the
way to meet someone like they did with Michael.  

How has BET's mission evolved? How does President Obama being in the
White House help you? 

It just so happened that our new brand strategy started the
year President Obama was elected to the White House.  Our mission is to
respect, reflect, elevate and inspire our audience.

President Obama has had such a great effect. Having a black
family in the White House increases awareness of black culture, and the number
of non-black viewers coming to our network has increased.  

A few months ago, President Obama invited me to come in and
meet with a group of 12 CEOs to talk about the stimulus package. He said BET
should be there talking with the likes of Mattel and Xerox.  

BET worked with Procter & Gamble on a short series called My Black is Beautiful. Are you doing
any other sponsored programming? 

We just premiered a new series called Rising Icons,
in partnership with Grey Goose Entertainment, about up-and-coming artists in
music like Keri Hilson and Chrisette Michelle. The series takes viewers on an
up-close-and-personal journey behind the scenes with the artists, giving
viewers a glimpse into their road to stardom and revealing what it takes to be
successful in music and entertainment today. We are doing more on the
integrated marketing side. 

How are you working with Nielsen to make sure that the African American
audience is adequately represented?  

They have increased the size of the African-American sample
to 1,200, which is up from 600. We continue to find ways to make it more
realistic and more representative. 

How are ad sales proceeding? 

They're holding steady and improving. Earlier this year, it
was a tough time for everyone, but the third- and fourth-quarter ratings were
really positive. National TV sales have held up and ratings are moving in the
right direction. 

Tell us about what BET is doing in addition to the core channel, and
what's happening internationally? 

In the fourth quarter of this year, we'll be launching
Centric, which is targeted at 25- to 54-year-olds - essentially today's trend-setting,
sophisticated African-American and multicultural adults. We're busy with the
look and feel right now.  

We'll be bringing back the Soul Train Music Awards in
November on Centric. The music is going to be more R&B, and we've got two
new shows, one about young Black male models called Model City, and one called Keeping Up With
the Joneses
, which follows Houston high society.  

Internationally, we're on Sky and Freesat in the UK in
nearly 11 million homes. We launched in the UK
in February 2008, and we launched in Africa at
the end of last year.  

What are BET's achievements beyond the screen? 

Just last week, we hosted our annual Summer Camp for Girls,
which helps young African-American girls from low- and middle-income families
make healthy lifestyle choices. We host it in partnership with General Mills,
and more than 100 young girls attended this year. 

After Hurricane Katrina we did a talkathon and raised $14
million. In 2008, we also held of a number of grassroots events through our "Be
Heard" campaign to encourage people to get involved in the presidential
election and vote. 

We're always very proud of our pro-social efforts, which
include our Emmy Award-winning program about HIV/AIDS and sexual health
awareness called Rap-It-Up.