Debra Lee Stepping Down as BET CEO

The longtime executive ceded day-to-day duties to Scott M. Mills in December.
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Debra Lee

BET is losing its longtime champion.

Debra Lee is stepping down from her post as CEO and chairman at the Viacom-owned cable network. Lee's last day at the company will be Monday. The news comes after Lee ceded day-to-day oversight of the African-American-focused cable network in December, with Scott M. Mills taking over as president. She is not being replaced.

Lee, who first joined BET in 1986 as its first in-house counsel, built the network to become the top African-American brand, as the cabler is in more than 60 countries and reaches 125 million households.

"Debra’s vision and creativity have cemented BET Networks as a premier network for African-Americans and lovers of black culture," Viacom CEO Bob Bakish said Thursday in a statement announcing the news. "As BET continues to move forward, we will always be grateful to Debra for her leadership and commitment to creating top-notch entertainment that both entertains and empowers. Her passion for the BET brand has resulted in countless wins and has allowed BET to stay competitive in a growing media landscape. While we will all miss Debra tremendously, we respect her decision and understand her desire to leave at the very top of the game with a legacy of significant contributions that spans decades. I have seen firsthand how the network has grown under her direction, and I know that she will bring that same innovative thinking and strategic vision to her future pursuits. Debra has groomed an amazing group of senior executives, and I am confident that BET Networks will continue to flourish under their leadership."

The news of Lee's depature comes as Bakish has taken a strong hand to the Viacom portfolio, making major executive changes at each of the key brands and placing new executives at the top of key networks that include MTV/VH1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and now BET.

BET last year shuttered its longtime and original home in Washington, D.C., and moved its headquarters to New York, with Lee relocating to Los Angeles. Bakish also installed Michael D. Armstrong as general manager, replacing president Stephen Hill, who was subsequently replaced by Mills. When Mills was installed in December, Lee retained her role as chairman and CEO and was to focus on BET's relationship with key external stakeholders and serve as an adviser to Mills.

Mills set his first upfront slate earlier this year, telling The Hollywood Reporter that his No. 1 priority was to meet and bring top talent back to BET. The Viacom-owned cabler has seen many top stars and producers flock to deep-pocketed outlets like Netflix as the push for more inclusive programming has exploded. Mills had been serving as executive vp and chief administrative officer of Viacom, where he oversaw human resources, real estate, facilities and security.

For her part, Lee has been the face of  BET for three decades. She was promoted to president and chief operating officer in 1996 and added chairman and CEO to her résumé in 2005. The executive ushered BET into the scripted space with The Game and programming that highlights the black experience, including Being Mary Jane, The Real Husbands of Hollywood and, more recently, In Contempt. During Lee's tenure, BET has remained the No. 1 network among black viewers for the past 17 years. 

Lee next plans to focus on corporate and nonprofit boards and her work with the Time's Up movement as well as the Recording Academy's diversity and inclusion task force, among others. (Read her full statement, below.)

With Lee's departure, Bakish — who has remained committed to reinvigorating Viacom and its cablers — has now replaced the top executive at each of his network: Brian Philips was pushed out at CMT following a 16-year run; Chris McCarthy became MTV's third president in as many years when he replaced Sean Atkins; Kevin Kay oversaw the rebranding of Spike TV into Viacom's general entertainment hub Paramount Network (forcing Sharon Levy out); and Kent Alterman replaced Michele Ganeless at the helm of Comedy Central (though the latter was before Bakish came in). Most recently, Sarah Levy added oversight of Nickelodeon and BET to her role as COO. Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's longtime president and a 32-year veteran at the kids-focused network, is nearing the end of her contract and has seen her role reduced in recent years. 

Here is Lee's statement: 

In 1986 I joined BET Networks to be its very first in-house counsel. As a young corporate attorney I saw my role as the protector of the BET brand and its employees and today, more than 32 years later, I still see myself as the protector and defender of a brand that I have helped to grow as a top destination for audiences across the globe. I have called BET Networks home for over three decades and this team is part of my extended family.
In addition to the legacy I have built for BET Networks in the media landscape, I am also extremely proud of the legacy of values that I helped to instill at the network during my tenure. My belief that we can do well and do good has been a guiding principle and one that I hope you will continue after my departure. Together, we have built a world-class brand that connects with fans through the power of storytelling and we have attracted and nurtured top talent across the globe.
I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude to our parent company, Viacom, for their continued belief in the power of the BET brand and their unwavering support of my long and fulfilling career here. I would especially like to thank Bob Bakish for supporting me as I start the next chapter in this exciting journey.
I could not be prouder of the enormous amount of talent and creativity at BET Networks today and I will always be BET’s number one fan, rooting for each and every one of you as you continue to break barriers and share your authenticity with the world. I leave with pride, gratitude, and joy for a life-changing professional and personal journey. Continue to do it "for the culture" and much success to you all. You deserve it.