Women in Entertainment 2010 - Power 100 List
It’s 10:30 on a Saturday morning in October, and Debra Lee is sitting inside the Manhattan Four Seasons’ bright restaurant, eating oatmeal and slices of peeled grapefruit. Tonight the D.C.-based mother of two teens will be at the Bronx’s historic Paradise Theater for this year’s installment of Black Girls Rock! an annual ceremony honoring influential African-American women. Lee is downright giddy as this is the first year it will be televised.
“I made a commitment to improving images of women,” she says, stirring her coffee. “Black Girls Rock! Every time I say it, it makes me happy.”
Dressed in a teal sweater and black slacks, Lee is that rare network executive willing to say that she’s happy. And the Harvard lawyer has lots of reasons for being so.
BET is coming off its best year to date. Its June BET Awards telecast attracted a record 7.5 million viewers, and the network is set to unveil its first lineup of scripted programming, including The Game, a football-themed comedy that originally ran on the CW, and Staying Together, a sitcom produced by Queen Latifah. Lee has also overseen development of BET’s offshoot network Centric, which debuted in 2009 and targets an older demographic. This expansion, coupled with BET’s growing profile around the world — it has 14 million viewers in the U.K. and can be seen in 28 countries in Africa — has poised the once music-centered cable brand to lead black programming.
“You just get to a point where you need a real identity,” Lee says. “Rebranding has forced us to ask, ‘What does BET really stand for?’”
Lee grew up the daughter of an Army general and hospital administrator in the thick of the civil rights movement. Born in 1955 in Fort Jackson, S.C., she and her family lived in Germany before settling back in Greensboro, N.C., at the height of segregation. “I went to an all-black junior high and high school,” she says. “But we didn’t feel like we were suffering. We had our own community.” When integration happened during her senior year of high school, Lee says, “it disrupted everything. It was hard to see then that, in the long run, this would be the right thing.”
Lee’s parents hammered into their children the crucial need for education. But Lee had a rebellious streak that often collided with her father’s conservative sensibilities. “I mean, I had a huge Afro in high school; my father did not approve,” recalls Lee, smiling. “He said I looked like [Black Panther activist] Angela Davis. He thought the FBI was going to pick me up on the street.”
After attending Brown for undergrad, Lee entered the white, mostly male world of Harvard Law. She landed at a 300-person firm in D.C. where there were “only three or four women, and they were all unhappy,” she says. In 1986, she had a life-changing lunch with BET founder Bob Johnson, who told her his five-year-old cable venture needed a staff lawyer.
"You get to a point where you need a real identity. What does BET really stand for?"
Her first big BET project was offering legal counsel to the network while it was being sued for backing out of a deal for a failed Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-style show that centered on black celebrities. “It was awful,” says Lee, laughing. “Bob decided to cancel the contract after the second episode. They asked,‘What do you think?’ I’d been at a firm for five years, and no one had ever asked me what I thought.”
In the early days of BET, when there were only 80 employees and 10 million subscribers (today there are more than 500 on staff and 98 million subs), the network’s original programming — or lack thereof — was a constant issue. Its mainstay was music videos, but with HBO expanding, BET was desperate to lock in any properties that were available. The advent of The Cosby Show and Oprah Winfrey further forced BET execs to ask: If white networks are providing these programs, then how does BET figure into the equation?
This made BET’s strategy for the 1990s all about cultivating its niche audience. By mid-decade, it was clear that hip-hop culture sold big. “But then it got into gangsta rap, bling, sexism — we kind of went along,” she admits. That meant dealing with characters whose guns-a-blazing dramas started playing out in the media. “We spent more time talking about security at the BET Awards than the show itself,” Lee says.
Since she transitioned to the top spot at BET in 2005, drawing a line between what it will and won’t air has been crucial.
“I realized, ‘OK, I believe in the freedom of speech for the artist, but I don’t have to put it on my network,’ ” she says. “Like, we aren’t going to try for a black version of Jersey Shore. If we did, it would be a black mark on our race. That’s the reality.”
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