Another veteran top executive at a Viacom cable network is leaving the company. After a career at BET spanning three decades, Debra Lee is stepping down from her position as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BET Networks, effective Monday, May 28, 2018. Lee, who began her career with the company as its first VP and General Counsel in 1986, was elevated to President and COO in 1996 and became Chairman and CEO in 2005.
Lee’s exit is not completely surprising. Viacom laid the groundwork for the move in December when Scott M. Mills was named BET president, a role in which he would oversee overall strategy and day-to-day operations of BET Networks including oversight of the brand’s programming, ad sales and digital teams. At the time, Lee was set to continue in her chairman and CEO role but was going to step back from running the network, and was to serve as an advisor to Mills. Most Viacom cable networks have undergone leadership changes as part of reorganizations implemented by Bob Bakish since he became Viacom CEO in early 2017.
Some of BET’s biggest success stories with Lee at the helm include the 2014 series premiere of The Game, the most-watched sitcom premiere in cable TV history with 7.68 million viewers, and the 2017 hit mini-series The New Edition Story, which brought in 28.4 million viewers from the initial run through subsequent encores, making it the highest-rated TV biopic of all time. With her in charge, BET Networks has remained the #1 network among African American viewers for the past 17 years.
Scripted series launched on Lee’s watch include Being Mary Jane, The Real Husbands of Hollywood, and In Contempt. She also oversaw the creation of “The BET Awards,” as well as the launch of the first festival weekend under the Viacom umbrella, The BET Experience.
Lee also oversaw the launch of the network’s website, BET.com, developed BET Her, the first network for African American women, and acquired television rights to Black Girls Rock! Lee also launched Leading Women Defined, an annual conference where notable African American women, including Former First Lady Michelle Obama, Venus Williams, Issa Rae and Erykah Badu, gathered each year for insightful debates and conversations on issues that impact their community and families. Additionally, she championed BET’s breast cancer campaign “BET Goes Pink,” the education platform “BET Next Level,” voting campaign “BET Vote Your Voice” and several telethons for Florida, Haiti and Katrina under the “SOS: Saving OurSelves” initiative.
Per BET, following her departure from the company, Lee, a well-respected industry executive, plans to stay involved in the media industry and continue her role on corporate and non-profit boards. In addition, Lee also plans to continue her commitment to diversity and inclusion by advancing the rights of women and girls as well as people of color through her work with Times Up and The Recording Academy Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, to name a few. Lee’s annual gathering of prominent African American women, Leading Women Defined, will also continue under her leadership.