A June 6 Washington Business article about Debra L. Lee, the new chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, incorrectly said that the Black Family Channel is headquartered in Raleigh, N.C. It is based in Atlanta. (Published 6/7/2005)
When Debra L. Lee was named chief executive of Black Entertainment Television last week, there was no ceremony, no speeches. Just a company-wide e-mail. After all, Lee had been in charge of the company's day-to-day operations for the past nine years.
But while Lee's duties didn't change much, BET may never be the same.
Lee, 50, takes over BET at a pivotal time for the District-based network, which reaches 80.6 million cable subscribers. Not only is she the first chief executive to follow the company's departing founder, Robert L. Johnson, but the company she inherits is vastly different from the one he created 25 years ago with a $15,000 loan. Instead of an upstart taking its place among a dozen or so cable channels, BET boasts that it is now recognized in 100 percent of African American households. Yet it must fight for viewers in an ever-expanding universe of channels.
BET, which is now a division of the media company Viacom Inc., has established itself with its target audience of young adult African Americans through a heavy rotation of music videos and reruns of old dramas and sitcoms. But that won't be enough to sustain BET's brand indefinitely, according to industry analysts and the company's own leaders.
The reason is the dizzying number of basic and digital cable networks vying for people's attention, including two direct competitors: TV One, based in Silver Spring and backed by urban radio broadcaster Radio One and cable operator Comcast; and the Black Family Channel of Raleigh, N.C., bankrolled by investors led by millionaire trial lawyer Willie Gary.
TV One and the Black Family Channel aren't in enough households yet to be a factor, Lee said. TV One reaches 18 million subscribers and the Black Family Channel reaches 30 million. That still leaves everyone else.
"What keeps me up at night is MTV, UPN . . . ABC and Fox's 'American Idol.' Those are the ones that take viewership away," said Lee, a Harvard Law School graduate who started her career as a telecommunications lawyer. Her clients included BET, and she was recruited to join the company 19 years ago as its general counsel.
To remain on top in today's hypercompetitive environment, some say BET under Lee must come up with more compelling content.
The key, said Deborah Gray-Young, vice president and director of media services of E. Morris Communications, a Chicago marketing firm, is finding shows that appeal to those consumers and advertisers who have not always felt comfortable with BET's sometimes racy fare.
Founder Johnson readily agreed. "BET has to be considered more than a black business success story," he said. "It has to be considered a black programming success story."
Lee is well aware of the task she faces. She has already tinkered with BET's lineup, adding reruns of "Soul Food" and "Girlfriends" to the schedule. And she has hired a director of development to get original programs in the pipeline.
Lee also has designs on expanding BET's reach internationally through its BET Jazz network. BET had an international presence once before but abandoned it, she said.
Lee's ambitions aren't confined to the small screen. She said BET will likely delve deeper into the moviemaking business by starting its own production company. BET recently invested in and promoted "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," which opened No. 1 at the box office and grossed $22.7 million in its opening weekend. "We've shown we can help open a movie," she said.
Many of these initiatives will require the backing of senior management at Viacom, which bought BET from Johnson for $3 billion in 2000. In fact, Ken Smikle, president of Chicago-based research firm Target Market News, said BET's corporate parent will have to play at least as big a role in BET's transformation as Lee. "The pressure is on Viacom now to do all of those things they said they would do to enhance BET as a full-fledged, branded network," he said.
Potentially complicating Lee's plans for BET in the near-term is Viacom's plan to split up the company, separating its fast-growing cable TV and movie holdings from its slower-growing CBS television network and its Infinity radio stations. If the split occurs, BET will most likely be grouped with MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures. Lee said she has received personal assurances from Viacom co-president Tom Freston that it will be "business as usual" at BET.
Lee, who lives in the District with her two children, said there is one change already: Her phone rings more often now.
"People do pick up the phone and call me. Before they only called if they couldn't get a hold of Bob," she joked.
Otherwise, life hasn't changed since last Wednesday. In recent years, Johnson has been focused on other pursuits, including his professional basketball franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats, and investing in hotels and financial service companies. He said he is also looking to buy a bank in Washington. He said after he retires he will continue to live in Washington and work out of an office in an adjacent suburb.
Johnson will remain BET's chairman until January, when Lee will become chairman as well as chief executive. That is when she expects to notice a difference as she is thrust more into the spotlight.
"It will be a lot more attention focused on me personally," she said. "BET is an iconic brand, especially in the African American community. And it's important who leads these companies."