Cameron Pollack

Debra L. Lee speaks of her experiences in the television industry and leading a black female-focused network Monday.

April 4, 2016

BET Networks CEO, Debra L. Lee Explains Pledge to ‘Tell Stories Differently’

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Debra L. Lee, chairperson and CEO of Black Entertainment Television Networks, discussed her highly successful career in entertainment Monday in the Alice Statler Auditorium.

Lee — who was named one of the 100 most powerful women in entertainment by  “The Hollywood Reporter,” addressed BET Networks’ unique position as a source of black entertainment.

“We’re BET — we’re different, and we should do things that other networks won’t cover or won’t put on the air,” Lee said. “Covering stories that no one else does — whether it’s Katrina 10 Years Later: Through Hell in High Water, an O.J. [Simpson] story or a documentary on Muhammad Ali and how he influenced hip hop — is, for sure, part of BET’s mandate.”

Lee also mentioned Madiba — a six-part miniseries on the life of Nelson Mandela which will air later this year — as evidence of BET’s commitment to “telling stories differently.”

“It’s the first time a black director [Kevin Hooks] has told the story of Nelson Mandela,” she said. “That may make a difference compared to having white directors tell Mandela’s story.”

Lee broached recent criticisms of the entertainment industry for its lack of black entertainment.

“The only way that’s going to change is if you have black people and women in decision-making roles,” she said.

Lee argued that the expansion of black entertainment can be an engine of social change.

“Everything we spend our time doing — movies, films, television — is developing what we think about each other,” Lee said. “You look at what The Cosby Show did in the ’80s in terms of portraying a slice of black family life that a lot of people didn’t even know existed. It had a black family in which the mother is a lawyer, the father is a doctor and the kids are good-looking and smart. That really made a change … it gave a different look at black life.”

Lee’s newest enterprise is the launch of Centric — which she said is the first cable network television channel tailored to black women.

The businesswoman recounted how a team of executives — tasked with proposing a second channel to BET Networks — discovered a void in black female-oriented cable networks.

“Many networks had put their toe into the black women’s space, but none of them owned it. We said, ‘Why don’t we be the first network to own it?’ And that’s what we did,” Lee said.

She said that the success of Centric is due to its loyal audience.

“Centric is doing very well,” Lee added. “Getting an audience loyal to your brand is half the battle because there’s so much clutter out there and younger people don’t watch networks — they watch shows. So, one of the advantages we have with both BET and Centric is that people like the brand and they’re loyal to the brand.”

Lee noted BET Networks’ efforts to expand its frontiers into Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, France, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

“We’re trying to go wherever there’s a population that is either black or interested in black culture,” Lee said.

The event was co-sponsored by the Law School, School of Hotel Administration and the College of Arts and Sciences with the Africana Studies & Research Center. Prof. Kevin K. Gaines, Africana studies and history, moderated the discussion.