BET chief talks changes

Changes are coming to Black Entertainment Television, according to the president of the network. Debra Lee, who was named president and CEO of BET in June, discussed her vision of success for the cable network

Changes are coming to Black Entertainment Television, according to the president of the network.

Debra Lee, who was named president and CEO of BET in June, discussed her vision of success for the cable network on Thursday, Dec. 1, in Mitten Hall. The lecture was part of the School of Communication and Theater’s Charles and Elaine Sherman Lecture series.

Lee, who has been working at BET for 20 years, said she plans to expand on the dream that founder and former CEO Robert Johnson envisioned for the network by improving programming and online content, and reaching more viewers through films and an expanded cable lineup.

“The BET of tomorrow will look nothing like the BET of today,” Lee said. “BET will become a place for anyone around the world to consume black culture. It will become the repository of black culture.”

This year, BET celebrated its 25th anniversary and watched ratings and viewership climb to all-time highs. During the 2004-2005 television season, according to Lee, 27 million viewers tuned in, giving the network its highest ratings ever because of new specials such as the BET Awards, acquisitions of black programming like Girlfriends and marketing ventures like the BET Black College Tour.

“BET the company, the brand and the dream has much more to offer,” Lee said.

The revamped programming package, according to Lee, is an effort to make deeper connections with their target audience, the 18 to 34 demographic, and to make the network as “black and authentic as possible and more black and authentic than anyone else.”

To carry out her plan, the network has changed their news format from one-hour nightly news specials to several news briefs throughout the day. These hourly updates will provide information catering specifically to the black community. Plans have also been made to incorporate more news online. To further improve their Web site,, Lee said she hopes to integrate online content with existing shows in addition to creating web-only material. There will be more community programming, and real video on demand capabilities to better serve viewers.

BET Jazz, a subsidiary cable channel that offers 24-hour jazz, will be expanded to attract more mature viewers, and BET Pictures will follow up on Tyler Perry’s 2005, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, with more films catering to black moviegoers, Lee said.

“We will stick our flag in the ground and claim our rightful space in the movie business,” Lee said.

“It was interesting to find out her ideas about BET’s direction for the future,” John Pierre, a junior majoring in broadcasting, said. “I think I will watch [BET] a little bit more, because like she said, original programming is important. BET has more responsibility now to present us with more news and programming that will help us understand ourselves and our sense of culture.”

BET is also revitalizing its business efforts. More marketing mergers will take place to generate revenue and “give advertisers a more integrated product,” according to Lee.

A Jeep Commander, for instance, is part of the grand prize package on Ultimate Hustler, BET’s street version of NBC’s The Apprentice, with hip-hop mogul Damon Dash.

Lee also announced that the company would be partnering with Wal-Mart to sell music and DVDs and to teach the retail chain how to market to black consumers.

“We cannot allow fear to keep us from that which has never been done,” Lee said. “The key to building our success is to develop creative solutions in new and unique ways.”

These changes are being made possible, in part, due to the upcoming split of Viacom, its parent company of five years. By the end of the year, Viacom, the owner of major networks such as MTV, CBS, UPN and Showtime, will separate into two companies, CBS Corporation and Viacom.

The new Viacom will consist of MTV Networks, Paramount Pictures, Paramount Home Entertainment, Famous Music and BET. CBS Corporation will include companies such as Simon & Schuster, King World, CBS Television Network and UPN.

According to Lee, the split was a revenue decision, and once completed, the separation will allow the network to become “a bigger fish in a much smaller pond.”

“I thought the lecture was fantastic,” Brendan Bailes, a junior majoring in communications, said. “She’s obviously risen to great heights, which is very impressive and I admire what she’s done. Her vision is to bring in more balanced content to BET, and I think that’s a great vision.”

One viewer, at least, was not totally convinced by the speech.

“Ms. Lee is an amazing woman and is a very articulate speaker; however, I think it’s too soon to tell if her vision and dreams of BET will actually become something that’s tangible,” Crystal Isaac, a Temple alumna who now works as a traffic editor with, said.

BET reaches more than 80 million households in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.

“She said ‘success is not a destination, it’s a journey,’ and that’s an inspirational message,” Bailes said. “You don’t want to reach one goal and just stay there and be content, you want to always be moving forward to achieve greater and greater success.”

Lee said her ultimate goal as CEO is to make BET a modern media company.

“After a quarter of a century, Bob Johnson’s vision lives on,” she said, “BET will be forever young.”

Andrea A. Boston can be reached at

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