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THR's Women in Entertainment 2011: Power 100

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    24. Debra Lee
    24
    Debra Lee
    Chairman and CEO, BET Networks

    It was Lee's Harvard Law degree that served as her entree into BET when network founder Bob Johnson hired her to start the legal department 25 years ago. But Lee doesn't conceal her aversion to the law. "I never liked it," she admits. "I was one of those students who said, 'I didn't have anything else to do so I'll go to law school.' And that made it tough. I ended up in a great place and I have a very creative job that I love. But if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have taken that path."

    Still, that path took Lee from BET's general counsel to COO in 1996 and, in 2005, to the top spot at the company. She now oversees the flagship network and sister channel Centric, which targets older viewers. "It was a quick learning curve," says Lee, 57.

    PHOTOS: THR's 2011 Women in Entertainment Power 100

    The mother of a college-age daughter and a son who recently graduated and is now working in the programming department at XM Sirius, the Washington–based Lee likes to start her day by walking her daughter's dog. "My definition of a good day is when I have time in the morning to do a 45-minute walk before going to work," she says.

    She also spends considerable time on the road, traveling to BET's offices in New York and Los Angeles as well as Atlanta, where the network's scripted series are produced.

    After years of relying on music videos, some of which many felt glorified the gangsta lifestyle and objectified women, BET is coming off of its highest-rated season ever due in large part to a new slate of scripted programming led by The Game. Last January's premiere of the comedy -- which BET resurrected after it was canceled by the CW -- was watched by nearly eight million viewers, a cable record. It also served as a launching pad for Let's Stay Together (both shows return next month). And in October, BET, which is in more than 90 million households, premiered its third comedy, Reed Between the Lines, starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Tracee Ellis Ross.

    With a dearth of scripted television exploring black culture, BET's efforts not only have found an audience, they've also made the network a destination for African-Americans in the creative community. "We're giving black writers, producers and showrunners a home," Lee says. "A lot of people have thanked me for proving that the business model of good, quality African-American-targeted programming continues to work."

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