First Person Singular: Debra L. Lee, 57, Washington, CEO and chairman, Black Entertainment Television (BET)

Matt McClain/For The Washington Post - BET chairman Debra L. Lee: “We can’t afford to just be an entertainment network — there’s too many issues that are yet to be resolved in our community.”

When I look back on it, I was always interested in the media. I wrote a weekly column for the local black paper, the Carolina Peacemaker, on what was happening at my high school. I went to an all-black public high school, and I always loved strong black brands. I grew up in the days of Motown and Ebony and Essence, so as a young woman in the segregated South, these black brands were always important to me.

TV, in general, is challenging because it’s a day-by-day process. You get Nielsen ratings every day, and you may have a success one night, and then the next night you have to duplicate it. It’s always: What have you done for me lately? And it’s no exact science. People used to ask in the early years of BET, “How come you don’t have sitcoms?” “Why can’t you do a Cosby show?” You have to make decisions based on what resources are available. You can’t do everything overnight.

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We do have a very different mission. We can’t afford to just be an entertainment network — there’s too many issues that are yet to be resolved in our community. Just being black was not enough; we had to create values that were important. We used to think of it as a burden, but now I think of it as a passion of our audience. [They] want us to show the kind of images that they’re not getting from other networks. I think the difficulty is finding that place where an audience will be entertained and educated at the same time. I mean, we don’t want to be PBS. We want our audience to have fun, to laugh and enjoy the music.

So many networks are not targeting the African American community anymore. There is a big playing field for us. Every new show is a challenge. I remember the excitement in the halls of BET the day we found out how well [the sitcom] “The Game” did. People were hugging and screaming. As we get more into scripted [shows], we’re producing the kind of programming that our audience wants to see because you can write the storyline. You can create the characters. You can tell the story that you want.

With BET Honors, we honor individuals that are not necessarily honored on other networks. Not only artists and performers, but to be able to give Dr. Keith Black an award for his work in brain surgery, or Dr. Ruth Simmons, who’s president of Brown University.

There are so many people doing great things that our young people need to know about. I usually present the Humanitarian Award [at] the BET Awards every year. I think it’s important for our audience to know that BET is run by an African American woman. That’s one of the reasons I still do the BET Awards, to remind people that the buck stops with me.

 
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