'It's lonely at the top,' says BET's former CEO and chairman Debra Lee
Debra Lee stepped down as chairman and CEO of BET in May of 2018, ending a 32-year stint at the network. It was an unprecedented run that was never supposed to have happened in the first place: In 1986 Lee was well on her way toward having a successful legal career.
An army brat who went to Brown University, Lee completed a dual law and public policy degree at Harvard, one of the first black women to do so. She served as a law clerk at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and went to work for Steptoe & Johnson, a DC-based corporate law firm. After five years there, she realized she just wasn't having any fun.
So she did what any completely irrational person would do—and went to work in the media. In 1986 she joined a small startup called BET, the parent company of Black Entertainment Television, as general counsel. Even though BET was a client of her firm, cable had not yet come to DC and the firm’s own partners were baffled by her decision to switch teams. “They didn’t think cable would last,” she says on the latest episode of the “Ad Lib” podcast. “It was risky but I felt so good about it … And then look at this! Cable lasted.”
So did Lee. Under her leadership, BET’s programming went in a markedly new direction, pivoting away from music videos—which comprised around 60 percent of the network’s programming in 2005—and into original programming.
“We needed more original content that we owned, and our audience was asking for that … We were the only black network out there and they wanted us to be different,” she says. “They wanted good programming. They also expected us to have authentic images, not to be preachy or do goody-goody programming. But to do honest programming.” And videos had become a commodity.
BET, the first black-owned TV company to go public in 1991 before being acquired by Viacom in 2001, would alter course in the coming years. The company invested in new capabilities, syndicated shows and bought new programs—gradually pushing away from videos, which Lee did not feel were reflective of the broader black community. (It didn’t help that a Maryland pastor was bringing his congregation to her D.C. home daily to protest the language and portrayal of women in rap videos on the network.)
In an interview that begins with her legacy, Lee branches off into multiple directions, including life after BET and how the media landscape has evolved over 30 years. Lee sits on a number of boards today, including AT&T’s, and has thoughts about the nascent streaming wars as HBO Max enters the fray.
“From a consumer perspective the great thing is, there’s lots of great programming. But how many of these services are you going to be willing to pay for if they only have one or two hit shows?” she asks. “Right now I think a lot of consumers are just taking everything but at some point they’re going to say, ‘Wow I’m spending more on these streaming services than I spend on cable.’ And that’s not a good thing.”
Lee likens the inchoate streaming landscape to the early days of cable, something she knows a little bit about.
“In 1986 most of the major cities weren’t even wired yet,” she says. “How are the streaming services going to put enough diverse programming on that appeals to everyone?”
Lee was born on an Army base in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Her father, a captain, would take her family to Germany, to D.C., to Compton (blocks from the Watts riots of 1965), and to the segregated south. “It wasn’t until we moved to Compton, California, while my dad was in Korea, that I really learned that there were issues between races.”
It was a childhood that provided her with strong role models and taught her how to be one herself, even in a space with a paucity of people who look like her.
“The higher you go—you climb the ladder in a professional world or [in] politics or entertainment whatever—it’s lonely at the top,” she says. “You don’t have many people to talk to. When I was growing my career I didn’t have many women to even look up to because there weren’t many female COOs or CEOs.”
Today in her role as founder and chairwoman of Leading Woman Defined, an annual gathering of African American women leaders to discuss the issues of the day, Lee says she looks for opportunities to advance an underrepresented community. Lee, a Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Famer and a 2019 inductee of the Advertising Hall of Fame, talks about receiving the latter honor last year. At the banquet, she looked at the industry elite and the audience and marveled that they were still predominantly white men. “It was distressing that the industry hasn’t changed that much at all,” she says.
After more than 30 years in the business, that’s a source of distress. As for the cable industry specifically, programming is more diverse, Lee says, but executive leadership is not: “The thing that hasn’t changed as much is the number of executives in the media industry and the advertising industry.”