Debra Lee served as CEO of Black Entertainment Television in an era when the cable station found ways to be innovative and entertaining. Signature programs such as “106 & Park,” “Rap City,” “BET Awards,” “The Game,” and “Being Mary Jane” proved that BET could create original programming that focused on Black culture while consistently garnering major viewership numbers.
Lee, who recently released the book, I Am Debra Lee:A Memoir, recently stopped by the Real Times Media studio to provide insight on her book and how she helped to advance BET’s original programming.
Incorporating original programming was a bit of a struggle during the early days of BET.
“I would often get calls from our audience to have more original programming,” Lee said. “They didn’t understand that we didn’t have the budget for original programming. So when I took over as CEO, people started asking me my vision. I wanted us to do more original program. By that time, we had been acquired by Viacom. We had more resources. And I just felt like we were never going to be taken serious as a network unless we did original program.”
One of the firsts scripted series on BET was their acquisition of the sports comedy, “The Game.”
“We took that over from CBS and it aired on the CW,” Lee said. “It would get about 1.5m viewers weekly. They never promoted it, but people loved it. And when the CW cancelled it, there was an email campaign for BET to pick it up. And we had already started showing the reruns of the shows. And so we knew our audience loved it. So the show had been off the air for about two years. And we finally convinced CBS to trust us. They didn’t think we could keep up the production quality, go figure. And the show has been around for so many years afterwards. We hired the same team of writers and actors and put it on the air. On the night of the debut on BET, we got 7.7m viewers which is still a record. It proved that if you gave Black viewers high quality content, they would show up.”
Following the success of “The Game,” BET would produce “Being Mary Jane,” and several events that honored those who achieved in the arts and community affairs.
“We wanted all of our programming to have a purpose,” Lee said. “That was my goal and my vision and our brand strategy. We wanted to respect, reflect and uplift our audience. And if programming didn’t do that, we didn’t want to do it. And so the original programming proved that we could do that and then I created shows like BET Honors and Black Girls Rock.”
But even with success, Lee and BET faced turbulent times. In a time when rap music had become mainstream music, BET was viewed as a vehicle that helped to expand rap artists. However, the network faced backlash due to the airing of more explicit videos.
“I had protesters outside my house for about seven months,” Lee said. “A young minister in Maryland did not like three videos that aired on BET. So I became the focal point of criticism of hip-hop videos, which I thought was unfair. We really worked hard with record labels to get them to the point where we could air the videos. We had a standards committee made up of different folks from BET. Young people, older people from different departments. And we put a lot of time and effort into it. But none of the rappers came to my defense. And so I said, ‘If I’m going to be the face of hip-hop criticism, I’m going to institute my standards.’ I became the final decision maker of what videos would air. It’s not what I went to law school to do, but that’s what I became.”
Although Lee faced a lot of backlash, many continue to respect her for how she helped to expand hip-hop.
“People still come up to me on the street, especially young Black men and say, ‘Thank you, Miss Lee, for what you did for the culture,’” she said. “That just warms my heart.”
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