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Remaking BET With Originals

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When Debra Lee took over as chairman and CEO of BET Networks six years ago, the then 25-year-old channel had already established itself as the cable destination for African-Americans. But Lee knew the brand could be so much more.

At the time, Washington, D.C.-based BET was competing with VH1, TBS and a burgeoning TV One, “and being black was not enough of a brand anymore,” Lee says. “It’s what we had grown up on, but our audience really expected something different from us.”

Identifying that difference took two years and would become the basis of a brand strategy informing the channel’s programming, marketing and pro-social campaigns “which really focused us on what our audiences wanted from us, and it came down to three words: respect, reflect and at the same time, elevate,” Lee says.

With that, Lee has guided BET’s original programming approach that supports families and embraces and encourages their dreams, focusing on the issues that are important to them while providing the “freshest” talent in entertainment.

The proof is in the numbers. BET’s primetime now averages 800,000 viewers in 18-34 year-olds—up from 150,000 " ve years ago. “That’s not easy to do,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP/ director of research at Horizon Media. Ratings have been driven by such nonscripted fare as The Family Crews and Tiny & Toya 2 as well as gospel music series Sunday Best, which continues to grow in season three.

106 & Park, which celebrated its 10th season in 2010, remains the leading music countdown show on cable among adults over 15 consecutive quarters.

Lee recently renewed BET’s latenight juggernaut, The Mo’Nique Show, for a third season featuring the Academy Award-winning actress and comedienne.

Lee’s winning strategy was bolstered even further this year by the unprecedented success of The Game. Season four of the former CW scripted series has averaged 4.8 million viewers over 13 episodes since its premiere telecast on BET in January, and has distinguished itself as the top sitcom in ad-supported cable TV history.

Season one of BET’s 13-episode original halfhour comedy Let’s Stay Together, produced under Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Productions banner, also pulled in noteworthy numbers with an average 2.6 million viewers. BET in April ordered new seasons of The Game and Let’s Stay Together.

“The one thing lacking with BET was that they didn’t really have a franchise show, and that changed with The Game,” Adgate says. “You want to have some sort of cuts across ethnicity and age group, and The Game has done that. That really righted the ship a little bit.”

Looking to build on that momentum, Lee secured the channel’s first multi-year development deal with The Game producers Salim and Mara Akil Productions; the husband-and-wife team will develop an unspecified number of new scripted shows for the channel.

At its upfront presentation, Lee announced the launch of BET’s next scripted comedy, Reed Between the Lines, produced and starring former Girlfriends lead Tracee Ellis Ross with Cosby Show veteran Malcolm Jamal Warner as her co-star. The show debuts this fall.

Lee is in talks with Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx to revive popular music franchise Showtime at the Apollo. Plus there are several drama pilots in development at the network.

“We’re fast becoming known as the place to bring projects,” Lee says, noting a buzz around BET’s L.A. offices. “I walked around there the other day and Malcolm and Tracee were in the office, the Akils were there. Robi Reed, an amazing casting agent in Hollywood for years, is now on staff there. There’s an energy there, and the word is spreading.”

One of Lee’s ongoing efforts—and challenges—is broadening BET’s demographic. In September 2009, Lee launched Centric as a 24-hour branded lifestyle and entertainment network catering to a “multicultural” and decidedly older adult audience.

“For years 18-34 was our target—that was our sweet spot,” says Lee. “But a few years ago it became clear people outgrew [BET] when they reached their mid-30s. So Centric is where we can do more mature-targeted programming, and we’ve also broadened the age demographic on BET.”

To bolster that initiative, this month’s BET Awards will feature R&B and retro acts. Lee also notes there is more coviewing among parents and kids for shows like BET Honors and the Sunday programming “because there’s now something for them to watch with their kids.”

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Lee joined BET as VP/general counsel in 1986 before being named president/ COO under founder Robert Johnson, who tapped Lee as his successor following his retirement from the Viacom-owned company in 2005.

Lee continues to bolster the brand internationally with distribution in Canada, the Caribbean, the U.K., the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

“What BET does now under Debra Lee is offer to the audience choice,” says Johnathan Rodgers, TVOne president/ CEO. “She made a channel that has grown in age in terms of its audience, she’s brought fresh ideas and original programming selections, and her hiring decisions have brought credibility to that brand. And it’s a brand that has a greater impact on our community than it had prior to her ascension.”

The most notable impact is in the more positive portrayals of African-American women on the air in female-driven sitcoms, as well as BET’s high-rated specials like Black Girls Rock! and My Mic Sounds Nice, the network’s music documentary about female hip-hop artists directed by independent " lmmaker Ava DuVernay.

“I hope one of my legacies is that I’ve changed the way that black women are portrayed,” says Lee. “And there’s a lot more we can do in this space in changing the face of television.”