Another veteran top executive at a Viacom cable network is leaving the company. After a career at BET spanning three decades, Debra Lee is stepping down from her position as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BET Networks, effective Monday, May 28, 2018. Lee, who began her career with the company as its first VP and General Counsel in 1986, was elevated to President and COO in 1996 and became Chairman and CEO in 2005.
Lee’s exit is not completely surprising. Viacom laid the groundwork for the move in December when Scott M. Mills was named BET president, a role in which he would oversee overall strategy and day-to-day operations of BET Networks including oversight of the brand’s programming, ad sales and digital teams. At the time, Lee was set to continue in her chairman and CEO role but was going to step back from running the network, and was to serve as an advisor to Mills. Most Viacom cable networks have undergone leadership changes as part of reorganizations implemented by Bob Bakish since he became Viacom CEO in early 2017.
Some of BET’s biggest success stories with Lee at the helm include the 2014 series premiere of The Game, the most-watched sitcom premiere in cable TV history with 7.68 million viewers, and the 2017 hit mini-series The New Edition Story, which brought in 28.4 million viewers from the initial run through subsequent encores, making it the highest-rated TV biopic of all time. With her in charge, BET Networks has remained the #1 network among African-American viewers for the past 17 years.
Scripted series launched on Lee’s watch include Being Mary Jane, The Real Husbands of Hollywood, and In Contempt. She also oversaw the creation of “The BET Awards,” as well as the launch of the first festival weekend under the Viacom umbrella, The BET Experience.
Lee also oversaw the launch of the network’s website, BET.com, developed BET Her, the first network for African-American women, and acquired television rights to Black Girls Rock! Lee also launched Leading Women Defined, an annual conference where notable African American women, including Former First Lady Michelle Obama, Venus Williams, Issa Rae and Erykah Badu, gathered each year for insightful debates and conversations on issues that impact their community and families. Additionally, she championed BET’s breast cancer campaign “BET Goes Pink,” the education platform “BET Next Level,” voting campaign “BET Vote Your Voice” and several telethons for Florida, Haiti and Katrina under the “SOS: Saving OurSelves” initiative.
Per BET, following her departure from the company, Lee, a well-respected industry executive, plans to stay involved in the media industry and continue her role on corporate and non-profit boards. In addition, Lee also plans to continue her commitment to diversity and inclusion by advancing the rights of women and girls as well as people of color through her work with Times Up and The Recording Academy Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, to name a few. Lee’s annual gathering of prominent African American women, Leading Women Defined, will also continue under her leadership.
Here are statements by Debra Lee and Viacom CEO Bob Bakish.
“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.”
“Debra’s vision and creativity have cemented BET Networks as a premier network for African Americans and lovers of black culture. 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 first-hand 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.”