Debra Lee: How a Legal Clerk Became Head of the BET Empire

In our series This Is 30, Arianna Davis sets out to dispel the idea that turning 30 means it's time to panic. Throughout her own 30th year, she'll sit down with a range of successful women she admires to question them about everything from climbing the rungs in their industries to designing a life that works for them — plus hear the advice they'd give their own 30-year-old selves. Don’t miss the first and second installments.
At 30, my career feels like it’s only just getting started. So for my next This Is 30 sit down, it only felt right to talluk to Debra Lee, a woman who began building her own legendary career in her 30s — and now, at the age of 64, is starting an entirely new chapter.
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When Lee graduated from Harvard Law School in 1980, she started out working as a legal clerk with the hopes that eventually she’d land somewhere in politics; her biggest goal was to eventually become the “assistant secretary to someone or the other.” But after Reagan was elected that same year, she opted out of working for a Republican administration and headed to a corporate law firm instead.
Fifteen years later, she became the Chief Operating Officer and President of one of the most historic television networks of all time – a place she’d joined years earlier via its legal department.
“I was 32 when I started working as the general counsel for a small, up-and-coming TV channel for Black viewers called BET,” Lee tells me. “I never even dreamed that I would end up running it. I just knew I liked working in communications, and growing up in the segregated South as a fan of Black brands like Ebony and Essence, I loved that I was going to a Black-owned company creating content for a Black audience. But looking back now at my 32-year-old self, I had no clue what was ahead of me!”
From that job as general counsel and later as COO and President, Lee eventually became the CEO and face of BET. And the gig came with many highs. Lee, who was named one of The Hollywood Reporter’s 100 Most Successful Women In Entertainment the last two years, is credited with growing the network’s audience with family-friendly entertainment and original programming, like The Game, a canceled CW show that became the most-watched cable sitcom debut of all time when it came to BET in 2011. And then there was Being Mary Jane, the award-winning fan favorite series which — at the time of its debut in 2014 — was one of the realest depictions of single Black women to ever hit television.
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But Lee’s post at the head of a network also meant that she was on the frontline for any backlash. In the early 00’s, for example, community leaders began to speak out against the negative stereotypes BET was arguably perpetuating with reality shows like Hot Ghetto Mess, plus the misogynistic messages depicted in the rap videos that frequently aired on the network’s video countdown shows. In 2007, a Maryland reverend led 500 protesters to the front lawn of Lee's home in Washington, D.C.; many of those activists continued to show up at her house every weekend for weeks straight.
“At first I was like, why is all of this backlash focused on me? I believe in free speech and the rights of young people to listen to what they want; why weren’t these protesters going to Jay-Z or Ludacris’ house?” Lee remembers. “But finally I had to look inward and say ‘What do I want my legacy at BET to be?’ The decision I had to ultimately make was, that’s fine, rappers can make the music they want, but I’m in charge of what I want to allow to run on air. So my executive team and I landed on a mission for BET: Respect, reflect, and elevate the audience. That made me tighten our standards, both for our network and for our viewers, which meant way less music video shows, more family-friendly series, and new original programming.”
In January, BET announced that Viacom executive Scott Miller was taking over as President while Lee remained as CEO; last month, Lee stepped down from her post entirely to focus on her work on undisclosed media projects and her roles on corporate and non-profit boards.
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Just before she left BET, I sat down with Lee at King Restaurant in New York to talk about what it was like being a divorced working mom and the face of a network — plus how she dealt with the pressure, what it’s like dating as one of the country’s most successful Black women, and what’s next for her. After our chat, I felt a lot less anxious about my next decade. After all, when she was my age, Lee didn’t know she was poised to become the queen of a media empire. So who knows what could be next for the rest of us 30-somethings?
Photographed by Krista Schlueter.
BET has been serving Black audiences for decades now. But sometimes it feels like the media and entertainment world are treating Black folks — and women, in particular — like we’re a trend, something that’s “cool” right now. Do you ever resent that and say hey, BET has been doing this? Do you think BET gets enough credit?
“We don’t get enough credit. We get more credit in the industry, like from Black producers and directors that got their first jobs at BET when they couldn’t get jobs at other places. For a lot of Black creatives and even music artists, we were their first exposure. Black programming is very popular right now because networks and media companies are finally learning what we’ve known at BET for years: We have a very loyal audience. If you give a Black audience quality, authentic programming, they will show up. And that was finally shown to a wider market by series like Empire and Shondaland’s shows. But we were working to serve and support this audience for a very long time, so I do sometimes wish we got more credit for that.”
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Did you feel supported in the industry by other Black executives — and specifically, other Black women?
“The day after we broke records by bringing back The Game from the CW to BET, Tyler Perry sent me flowers, and Johnathan Rodgers from TV One called me to say congratulations. Even though we’re competitors, our show proved for them that Black audiences will show up if they want and like the programming...so from there, execs like Tyler could use us as an example to say hey, this works.
“Now, while many women in the industry are supportive, it’s still a very competitive industry. We all get a daily report card called Nielsen ratings, so we knew what show won every night. So while women in this industry can separate themselves from that to a certain extent, in the end somebody’s gonna win and somebody’s gonna lose. You wish the best for other women, but hey, you don’t want them to beat you! It’s a hard balance. Like, I want the best for Shonda Rhimes, but her Thursday nights were killer for Thursdays nights on BET. So I was actually happy to hear when she got a Netflix deal, because we might’ve finally had a shot at competing! It’s especially tough for Black programming, because for awhile it came down to who had what nights: VH1 had Monday nights with their reality shows, BET had Tuesday nights with original programming like The Game and Being Mary Jane, Fox had Wednesdays with Empire, Shonda had Thursdays, and then Oprah came in with OWN shows...So while we don’t want to pit ourselves against one another, it is a competition. Is that being unsupportive, or just doing what your business demands of you?”
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Photographed by Krista Schlueter.
They're all grown up now, but through all of this, you were also the mother to a daughter and a son, and you’re divorced. How did you juggle all of that? Because you weren’t just a working mom, but the head of a network and a mom.
“I just really tried to be there for them whenever they needed me; I would do crazy things like take the red eye from LA so I could be at the Halloween parade for 20 minutes, because I knew it was important to my kids. And my ex-husband and I made sure that we put our kids first, even though the marriage didn’t work. And I tried to involve them in what I was doing, like they came to the BET Awards show and the NBA All Star game, so they had some perks and liked what I did, too. I think that impacted them somewhat as well because they are both grown now and each ended up in the music and entertainment industries. But I can’t deny that it was hard, because it involved a lot of travel and time management, and I’m blessed that I could afford help at home. But we definitely have to talk more as a culture about how women can do that, because to do it well you need support and a company or boss that’s understanding. And not every woman receives that.”
What’s dating like for you? It’s already hard enough for Black women to date, but even harder for successful Black women.
“After I stepped down as CEO of BET, I took one of my producers to a basketball game in LA, and we were talking about what I was going to do now, and one of the first questions he asked was ‘Are you going to date now?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, I thought I was dating before! I didn’t know being Chairman and CEO was keeping me from dating!’ But I didn’t realize people may have found me unapproachable just because of my title, so maybe now that I’m transitioning people will try to set me up! Hey, maybe I can use this story to put the word out! [Laughs] I went to Star Jones’ wedding, and she met her new husband on eHarmony. That was encouraging, because he’s a great guy. I do think it’s hard for me to date, because sometimes when I go out with someone and people want to take my picture, my date ends up playing photographer, which isn’t fun. So it’s going to take some work to find a spouse that’s understanding of that.”
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Is there anything in your career at BET that you would have done differently?
“I would’ve taken streaming more seriously earlier on. For instance, The Real Husbands of Hollywood was a big success for us, and then we sold that show to Netflix for re-airs. In retrospect I wouldn’t have done that, because it wasn’t a show where you had to watch it live, so now with Netflix, people wait and watch it on the weekends. When Netflix first became a thing, networks like us approached it as found money, like ‘Oh? They’re going to pay to buy our shows for re-airs? Great!’ We didn’t realize Netflix was going to grow their business on that, and now they’re a formidable competitor.”
I remember being in middle school and getting into an argument with a white classmate about why there wasn’t a WET — White Entertainment Television. Sadly that’s still a discussion that comes up when Black folks create something for themselves. What’s your response to non-Black people who ask why BET exists?
“When white folks say why don’t we have a white entertainment network, I’m like uh, you do! CBS! Fox! All of television! White people have so many networks and so many choices. Because we create one network for Black people or one magazine for Black people, that does not suddenly mean we’ve achieved equality. You have many options, we don’t. Until diversity really works on those other networks, you can’t complain about a BET or a TV One. You just can’t. I think we have solid ground to stand on. A lot of the shows that are on now, if we had them 30 years ago, maybe a BET wouldn’t have been necessary. And also, even though our main audience is Black, we’re still creating programming that we want all people to watch. You don’t get 29 million viewers for a series about New Edition, The New Edition Story, without having a diverse audience. All kinds of people of all races come up to me on the street saying how much they loved our show about New Edition. But ultimately, we wanted our Black audience to know BET is a place they can come 24 hours a day and see something about themselves.”
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Photographed by Krista Schlueter.
We’re talking a lot about women’s experiences in the corporate world in the wake of the #MeToo movement. What was your experience like?
“When I became COO, I was surprised by the number of women who came up to me and not just said congratulations, but also ‘we never thought this would happen.’ I had not thought a ton at that time about the absence of women in the industry, but when I became COO, it became common for people to say wow, and she’s a woman. The higher I moved up, the more I noticed there aren’t a lot of other women running media companies. I’m disappointed there hasn’t been more progress on that front in all of my years in this business. After the #MeToo movement took off, a lot of companies started discussing who could take over — for instance, Amazon had an issue with a male executive, and my name kept coming up as a possible replacement, not because there were any actual rumors, but because I was one of the few women of color who could even be an option. That was a sign that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
“I’ve served on several corporate and non-profit boards for years; my first ever was Kodak, and now I’m on the boards for Twitter and Marriott. I think more young people need to be aware of why they should one day serve on boards, because it’s not only great for you to bring your perspective to the company, but it’s also like business training. I learned from other CEOs how they run their companies. And I never wanted to be ‘the diversity person,’ but I do also think I could bring both my expertise and my perspective as a Black person and a woman to businesses and help them both hire more people like me and also better serve people like me.”
You’ve accomplished so much over an incredible career, and you’re only just getting started. If you could look back at 30-year-old Debra Lee and give her any advice, what would you tell her?
“I think I would tell her to be more outspoken. To be bold. I think when I was younger, because I’m somewhat of an introvert, I would sit in meetings and only speak up when I felt I had to. People knew and respected me, so they knew when I did speak up it was because it was important. But looking back, I would’ve spoken up a lot more and respected my own voice. But I can’t say I have too many regrets because...well, hey. I’ve done pretty well for myself! That’s really all a girl can ask. But I also maybe would’ve relaxed and taken a little more time off. An extra vacation or two couldn’t have hurt…”
Special thanks to King Restaurant.
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