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Debra Lee

Media company chief executive Debra L. Lee was born on August 8, 1955 in Fort Jackson, South Carolina to Richard and Delma Lee. In 1972, Lee graduated from Greensboro-Dudley High School and later moved to the East Coast where she attended Brown University. During her junior year, Lee spent a year studying abroad in Southeast Asia in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In 1976, after receiving her B.A. degree in political science with an emphasis in Asian politics, Lee attended Harvard University. She simultaneously earned her M.A. degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and her J.D. degree from Harvard Law School in 1980.

Shortly after, Lee moved to Washington to complete a clerkship with the late Honorable Barrington Parker of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In 1981, she worked at the law firm, Steptoe & Johnson, as a regulatory lawyer. Five years later, Lee joined Black Entertainment Television (BET Networks) and created its legal department. During her tenure, Lee has played pivotal roles in the company's history, including executive vice president and general counsel of the legal affairs department; corporate secretary; and president and publisher of the publishing division. In 1996, Lee became president and chief operating officer; and, in 2005, she was named chairman and chief executive officer. During her tenure, BET enjoyed some of its most explosive growth in ratings, revenue and popularity. She led the network's evolution beyond its successful music programming into original movies, documentaries, concert specials, news, late-night talk shows and public policy coverage. Lee has also substantially expanded investment in marketing, advertising, digital, research and development.

Lee has been regarded as one of the country's top female executives and served on the corporate board of directors of global businesses including Marriott International, Revlon and Eastman Kodak Company. She has also been affiliated with several professional and civic organizations including the National Board of Directors for National Symphony Orchestra, the National Women's Law Center and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Lee was also named Trustee Emeritus at Brown University, her alma mater.

Lee’s honors include the 2001 Woman of the Year Award from Women in Cable and Telecommunications and the 2003 Distinguished Vanguard Award for Leadership from the NCTA, a first for an African American female executive. Outside of the cable industry, Lee has also received special recognition, including the 2005 Madame C. J. Walker Award from Ebony magazine for best exemplifying the entrepreneurial spirit of the pioneering Black businesswoman.

Debra L. Lee was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on March 5, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.076

Sex

Female

Interview Date

3/5/2012 |and| 6/14/2012

3/5/2012

6/14/2012

Last Name

Lee

Maker Category
Middle Name

L.

Organizations
Schools

Brown University

Harvard Law School

Harvard Kennedy School

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Debra

Birth City, State, Country

Fort Jackson

HM ID

LEE04

Favorite Season

Spring

Sponsor

Herb and Sheran Wilkins Media Makers

State

South Carolina

Favorite Vacation Destination

Miami, Florida

Favorite Quote

The people are no better than the folks.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Interview Description
Birth Date

8/8/1955

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Lamb (Leg)

Short Description

Media company chief executive Debra Lee (1955 - ) is distinguished as being an African American woman chief executive officer and chairman of BET Networks, a division of Viacom.

Employment

BET

Steptoe & Johnson

Main Sponsor
Favorite Color

Orange

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Debra Lee's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Debra Lee lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Debra Lee talks about her mother

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Debra Lee recalls her early childhood in Germany

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Debra Lee discusses her parents' ancestries

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Debra Lee talks about her father, Richard McLeish Lee

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Debra Lee talks about her siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Debra Lee describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Debra Lee talks about her grandparents, and living in Germany during the time her father was stationed there in the U.S. Army

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Debra Lee describes her childhood experience in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Debra Lee describes her childhood experience in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Debra Lee recalls the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, California and attending an integrated school

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Debra Lee talks about her relatives who also lived in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Debra Lee talks about her family's decision to move to Greensboro, North Carolina, and her father's retirement from the U.S. Army

Tape: 1 Story: 15 - Debra Lee describes her experience in Greensboro, North Carolina

Tape: 1 Story: 16 - Debra Lee describes her experience in elementary school in Greensboro, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Debra Lee describes her experience at school in Greensboro, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Debra Lee talks about being influenced by the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Debra Lee describes her social life in school in Greensboro, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Debra Lee describes her childhood interest in music and television

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Debra Lee describes her desire to become a lawyer and her interest in journalism

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Debra Lee describes her experience at James D. Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Debra Lee talks about the part-time jobs she had in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Debra Lee talks about the environment at James D. Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Debra Lee talks about riots at James D. Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Debra Lee talks about participating in "Save the Black School Days" at James D. Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Debra Lee talks about her father's support for integration of the schools in Greensboro, North Carolina, and her opposition to integration in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Debra Lee talks about the integration of her James D. Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, and applying to colleges

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Debra Lee describes her decision to attend Brown University, and her early experience there

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Debra Lee talks about her parents' separation and the de facto social segregation at Brown University in the 1970s

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Debra Lee talks about her positive academic experience at Brown University, but being discriminated against in Providence, Rhode Island

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Debra Lee talks about her academic studies at Brown University and her parents' support of her studies

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Debra Lee describes her experience on a study-abroad program in Southeast Asia

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Debra Lee describes her cultural experience in Southeast Asia, and the perception of Americans there

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Debra Lee talks about returning to the U.S. from Southeast Asia, applying to law schools, and her decision to attend Harvard Law School

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Debra Lee talks about her decision to pursue a law degree at Harvard Law School

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Debra Lee talks about her trip to Boston to attend Harvard Law School

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Debra Lee describes her experience in Boston, Massachusetts in the late 1970s, and as an African American female student at Harvard Law School

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Debra Lee describes her experience in her first year at Harvard Law School

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Debra Lee talks about pursuing a dual degree at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Debra Lee talks about finding her niche as a dual degree student at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Debra Lee discusses her decision to accept a clerkship with Judge Barrington Parker

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Debra Lee talks about Judge Barrington Parker, her clerkship with him, and her experience as a clerk in the Washington, D.C. court system

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Debra Lee describes her experience at the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington, D.C., and her desire to pursue communications law

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Debra Lee describes her decision to accept a position as general counsel at Black Entertainment Television (BET)

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Debra Lee talks about her decision to leave Steptoe & Johnson LLP to join Black Entertainment Television (BET)

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Debra Lee talks about her marriages and her early years as general counsel at Black Entertainment Television (BET)

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Debra Lee talks about the staff, revenue and programing at Black Entertainment Television (BET) in the early years

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Debra Lee talks about her involvement in the construction of BET's studio in Washington, D.C. and the birth of her first son, Quinn

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Debra Lee talks about her growing responsibilities at BET as general counsel, corporate secretary and publications in-charge, as well as BET going public

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Debra Lee talks about her involvement in taking Black Entertainment Television (BET) public in 1991, and in launching 'YSB' magazine

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Debra Lee talks about the preparation and challenges involved as Black Entertainment Television (BET) went public in 1991

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Debra Lee talks about becoming the chief operation officer (COO) at Black Entertainment Television (BET)

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Debra Lee talks about Black Entertainment Television (BET) going back from a public company to a private one in 1998

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Debra Lee talks about Black Entertainment Television's (BET) talks with Viacom in the early 2000s

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Debra Lee talks about Black Entertainment Television's (BET) goals and revenue in the early 2000s, and Viacom's acquisition of BET in 2000

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Debra Lee talks about the major complaints against Black Entertainment Television's (BET) programming

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Debra Lee talks about the African American community's reception to the sale of Black Entertainment Television (BET) to Viacom in 2000

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Debra Lee describes her experience as chief operating officer (COO) as Black Entertainment Television (BET) transitioned into a division of Viacom

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Debra Lee talks about her daughter's birth, her father's death, and her bosses at Viacom

Tape: 6 Story: 11 - Debra Lee talks about becoming the chief executive officer (CEO) of Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 2005 and her vision for BET

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Debra Lee discusses her vision for programming changes at Black Entertainment Television (BET) and some of the challenges that she faced from audiences

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Debra Lee talks about rebranding Black Entertainment Television's (BET) programming, and the success of their first sitcom, 'The Game'

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Debra Lee talks about her decision to censor some of BET's programming in response to the audience's complaints, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Debra Lee talks about her decision to censor some of BET's programming in response to the audience's complaints, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Debra Lee talks about Black Entertainment Television (BET)'s competition

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Debra Lee shares her views on Black Entertainment Network's (BET) growth, success, and legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Debra Lee talks about her involvement in the community in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Debra Lee reflects upon the progress made in the African American community, and her own life's opportunities

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Debra Lee reflects upon her experience in Grant Park when Barack Obama was elected as president in 2008, and the progress of the black community

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Debra Lee reflects upon the significance of the Brown vs. Board of Education verdict in 1954 and the integration of schools in America

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Debra Lee reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Debra Lee narrates her photographs

DASession

2$2

DATape

7$5

DAStory

2$4

DATitle
Debra Lee talks about rebranding Black Entertainment Television's (BET) programming, and the success of their first sitcom, 'The Game'
Debra Lee describes her decision to accept a position as general counsel at Black Entertainment Television (BET)
Transcript
But during that time, you know, I talked to a lot of people in the community. We took a lot of advice, we talked to artists--and that's when we went through this branding strategy of, "Who is BET [Black Entertainment Television]? What do we want it to be?" You know, being black--being a black network is not enough, because there are a lot of other people. We now have competition, there are other black networks. You know, media companies are doing black programs or Black Nights. So, we really had to dig deep and figure out who we were. And that took about a year and a half, locking up executives, saying what are our values? What does our audience want from us? Doing more focus groups, doing more research. And we came out with this strategy that said, you know, our programming is going to respect, reflect and elevate our audience. Those are the three things we're going to do. And if the programming we're looking at doesn't do that, we shouldn't be doing it, because our audience doesn't want it from us. You know, I used to think that BET carried this burden, that we couldn't just be a television network. The people, the black community, expected us to solve their problems, to inspire them, to do more than what they expected from other networks. And then going through this branding process I realized, you know what? That's not a burden, that's a passion. You know, our audience cares so much about what we do. And if we give it to them, they're going to be there. They're going to be loyal. You know, our ratings are going to do better. And during that time, I hired a new head of programming (laughter) and someone who was more attuned to what I was trying to do. And, you know, it all worked out. We started sit-coms. So, we had to get away from the reality programming, because reality was train wreck reality sometimes. And you know, our audience would criticize us. They don't criticize other networks when they do it, but they would criticize us. So, we've kind of found our sweet spot of what our audience wanted, being able to do high quality programming. And the first major sit-com I green-lit was 'The Game', which was a show that was on the CW. CW cancelled it. The audience reached out to BET and said, please bring it back. It took us about two years to do the deal with CBS, but we were eventually able to bring it back. And now, it's a huge success for us. The night of premiere, we got 7.7 million viewers. It's the highest rated sit-com in cable TV history. And so, we were able to prove that if we give our audience high quality content, they will show up. They will support BET, they will love BET, and they will watch BET.$And what did you see your future as--if you saw your future?$$Well, at that time I thought I wanted to go in-house with a communications company. I knew I liked communications, and I wanted to do more in that industry. So, I actually started interviewing a lot in New York. I interviewed with HBO, interviewed with CBS Records, with CBS. So, I had quite a few interviews in New York. And every time I'd come back to [Washington] D.C., I realized how much I liked D.C., and I wasn't quite ready to move to New York. And around that time, BET [Black Entertainment Television] was a client, and I was doing more and more work for BET. And I went out to lunch with Bob [Robert L.] Johnson. I actually went to a cable hearing with Bob Johnson and Ty [Tyrone] Brown. Bob Johnson had won the cable franchise for the District of Columbia, and he and Ty Brown were negotiating the cable contract with the city. And so, I was helping out on that as an associate. And lunchtime came, and there was a break in the hearing. And Ty Brown went to, had to go back to the firm. And Bob Johnson looked at me and said, "Well, do you want to grab lunch?" And I said, "Sure." And so, we went to lunch. And during that lunch, he asked me if I was interested in coming over to be general counsel at BET. He said BET had gotten to the point--at that point BET was five years old, about five years old. And he said the company was at the point where he thought he needed in-house, an in-house lawyer. They didn't have one at the time, and that they couldn't afford to keep paying Steptoe [& Johnson LLP]. And he asked was I interested, and I said, "Yeah, I'd be interested in talking to you." And so, that was the first overture from Bob to me to come over to BET.$$And that was before you went to interview in New York at CBS, and HBO and the other places?$$No, it was actually afterwards.$$Afterwards?$$Yes.$$So when did you--$$Or during that same time.$$When did you decide that you would actually take him up on coming to BET?$$BET? Well, it took a couple of months. And he told me to go talk to Ty Brown (laughter), which I did. And I told Ty I was interested. And then there was no follow-up for a few months. And then I realized one day, I said, I'm going to have to make this deal directly with Bob. It's not going to come through Ty. Because Ty was outside counsel, so it was in his interest to keep the business. And so, I called Bob and said, you know--well, I called his secretary--and said, you know, I want to come in and talk to him. And I told him I was ready to leave Steptoe, and was he still looking for a general counsel. And he said yeah, it would be perfect timing. And so, it worked out. But I think when he offered me the job, I knew it was the right position. One, it was a black-owned company which I was very interested in. Two, it was in the entertainment industry, and three, it was in D.C., I didn't have to leave. So, I could stay in this town I loved, and I could go to a black-owned company doing the kind of television programming that I was very interested in. The funniest thing is at the time there was no cable yet in D.C., so I really hadn't even seen BET. It wasn't airing in D.C. at the time. So, it was really a leap of faith.