When she was nine months pregnant with her first child, Black Entertainment Television President and Chief Operating Officer Debra Lee said she was so involved with the construction of a new media studio that she physically scoured the site in a hardhat, “seeing if [her] son or the building were done first.”
Lee discussed this and other anecdotes before fielding some controversial questions during her talk to about 40 people at a packed Calhoun College Master’s Tea.
Throughout her 18 years with the company, Lee said she saw BET evolve from an 80 person cable channel with 10 million subscribers to a $3 billion empire that expanded to include restaurants and clothing lines.
“BET was more than a cable network, it was a brand,” Lee said. “BET stood for quality and targeted to African Americans.”
At BET, Lee said she is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day affairs of the cable channel, from selecting content to negotiating with advertisers and stockholders.
Some audience members said they wondered if a fair representation of the African American community was sacrificed for Nielson ratings and profit.
Katrina Gipson ’06 asked Lee if she thinks her responsibility to the Black community outweighed her responsibility to the company’s shareholders. Gipson asked specifically about the portrayal of black women in music videos.
“There are problems with images in terms of how artists portray women,” Lee said. “It is a balancing act we strive to do as a company. We don’t make the videos, we just air them. We have a review committee but artists do have a right to express themselves.”
Although Lee said that her ultimate responsibility as an officer in a publicly traded company is to return profit, she said the company considers moral issues as well. She described the content selection committee as a “group of young Black executives who bring their own expertise and value systems” to the company.
She pointed to BET-sponsored community initiatives like the HIV prevention program “Wrap it Up” as way in which the company strives to fulfill what she perceives as its ethical obligation.
Lee also said when CBS recently wanted to feature BET studio buildings as an eye-catching background for its edgy expose on Michael Jackson, BET refused.
“CBS News went crazy [about the rejection],” Lee said. “But we were not sure what they would say. Michael Jackson is a supporter of BET.”
Lee said the network tries to cater to a wide audience. While BET News consistently lost money, she said, it was kept on the air for a smaller audience of older viewers. Most advertisers cater to BET’s target demographic audience of 12- to 17-year-olds, Lee said.
Terelle Hairston ’06 said he came away from the talk disappointed that Lee did not elaborate further on BET’s choice to cancel some shows in place of what he described as more lowbrow content.
“I am a little worried about BET’s responsibility to maintaining an image of the Black community,” Hairston said. “[Lee] answered questions in a formatted way. It was like she had something on her mind.”
But many audience members laughed with Lee during parts of the talk. When introducing the upcoming BET reality show “College Hill,” Lee said the show’s concept is similar to MTV’s “The Real World.”
“The interesting thing in television is that everything’s a version of something else,” Lee said. “Everything is described as a cross between ‘King Kong’ and ‘Planet of the Apes.'”