Former Chief Executive of BET, Debra Lee, exemplifies the story of how one can start small with their dreams and successfully rise to the top. Her remarkable career spanned over three decades at BET, however, her trajectory had quite an interesting start. Although she studied law in college, she later became one of the most influential faces behind high-quality black content on BET.
She worked for a Washington D.C. law firm that enabled her to interact regularly with BET, co-founder, Bob Johnson. When she was presented with the opportunity to start a legal department at the Enterprise, she didn’t hesitate to take it.
However, she never envisaged she would revolutionize the production of high-quality black content. She started by taking on various responsibilities and roles as she worked her way to the top. In 1995, she became the chief operating officer, and rose to the position of chief executive officer a decade later.
Though her meteoric rise wasn’t planned, Debra grew an affinity for managing people and learning about the business side of media content production. This was seen in the direction she took in the type of programming and production of shows that ended up on BET. Due to the competition the enterprise faced, she wanted to define what the audience should know BET for.
There was stiff competition from shows like TVOne, WeTV’s Black Night, VHI, and the Oprah Winfrey Show. She maintained market dominance by making every show that aired on BET original high-quality content that was representative of its target audience, according to the board room.
Generally, African Americans are the highest patrons of television viewing in the United States. In 2021, African Americans watched tv for an average of 3.5 hours per day, compared to Asian Americans, who spend half of that amount on tv each day, according to Statista.
As much as Debra didn’t want to make all content on BET all-black, she believed the diversity in programming should provide a place of comfort for the black community. Decades down the line, she feels vindicated; major content production networks like Netflix, Apple tv, and other cable networks are prioritizing all-black programming.
This defeats the previous perception that it wasn’t profitable to invest in black content. In the past, film producers in Hollywood were reluctant to invest in all-black content based on the fear that they may run at a loss or incur the resentment of white audiences. However, decades later, Debra has proven that such an investment is indicative of the fact that people want to see good content irrespective of whether it focused on Latino, Asian, and Black cultures.
In that same spirit, BET produced outstanding shows like The Game, Being Mary Jane, and the BET honors and award shows. Debra now runs and owns two companies, Monarchs Collective and Leading Women Defined, to provide an enabling environment for African Americans and women on boards to network and grow their representation at the top management level.