Debra Lee Stepping Down As BET CEO

Written by Ann Brown

After nearly three decades with BET, Debra Lee has announced she is stepping down from her post as CEO and chairman at the Viacom-owned cable network. Her last day at the company will be Monday, May 28.

“The news comes after Lee ceded day-to-day oversight of the African-American-focused cable network in December, with Scott M. Mills taking over as president. She is not being replaced,” Hollywood Reporter reported.

Lee joined BET in 1986 as its first in-house counsel. During her years with the company, she helped build BET to become the top African-American brand. Currently, BET is in more than 60 countries and reaches 125 million households, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Under Lee, BET has remained the No. 1 network among Black viewers for the past 17 years.

BET has been undergoing changes in recent years. It closed its original home in Washington, D.C. last year and relocated its headquarters to New York. Lee worked out of Los Angeles. Michael D. Armstrong was hired as general manager, replacing longtime president Stephen Hill. Scott M. Mills was named  BET president.

During her tenure with BET, Lee held various positions. “She was promoted to president and chief operating officer in 1996 and added chairman and CEO to her résumé in 2005. The executive ushered BET into the scripted space with The Game and programming that highlights the Black experience, including ‘Being Mary Jane,’ ‘The Real Husbands of Hollywood’ and, more recently, ‘In Contempt,’” the Hollywood Reporter reported.

She helped accomplish many firsts for the network. “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,” Deadline reported.

Lee is already looking ahead to her life after BET. She says she will focus on corporate and nonprofit boards and her work with the Time’s Up movement as well as the Recording Academy’s diversity and inclusion task force, among others.

Lee released a statement, in which she wrote: “In 1986 I joined BET Networks to be its very first in-house counsel. As a young corporate attorney I saw my role as the protector of the BET brand and its employees and today, more than 32 years later, I still see myself as the protector and defender of a brand that I have helped to grow as a top destination for audiences across the globe. I have called BET Networks home for over three decades and this team is part of my extended family…I could not be prouder of the enormous amount of talent and creativity at BET Networks today and I will always be BET’s number one fan, rooting for each and every one of you as you continue to break barriers and share your authenticity with the world. I leave with pride, gratitude, and joy for a life-changing professional and personal journey. Continue to do it “for the culture” and much success to you all. You deserve it.”