BET CEO Debra Lee Is Leaving the Company After 32 Years

She led for two decades and is stepping down on Monday

Debra Lee joined BET in 1986 as its first vp and general counsel. Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

It’s the end of an era at BET Networks, as chairman and CEO Debra Lee is stepping down on Monday, after 32 years with the company.

Under her leadership, BET has been the No. 1 network among African-American viewers for 17 years, with hits like The Game, The Real Husbands of Hollywood and last year’s miniseries The New Edition Story.

Lee joined BET in 1986 as its first vp and general 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,” Lee said in a statement.

She was promoted to president and COO 10 years later and named chairman and CEO in 2005.

But in a sign of Viacom’s new direction under CEO Bob Bakish, Lee relinquished her president title last December, as Scott Mills was named to that position. In past years, almost all of the top positions at each of the company’s networks have changed hands, including the heads of MTV, Comedy Central, VH1, CMT and TV Land.

In a statement, Bakish said: “While we will all miss Debra tremendously, we respect her decision and understand her desire to leave at the very top of the game with a legacy of significant contributions that spans decades.  I have seen first-hand how the network has grown under her direction, and I know that she will bring that same innovative thinking and strategic vision to her future pursuits. Debra has groomed an amazing group of senior executives, and I am confident that BET Networks will continue to flourish under their leadership.”

This was the first year BET did not hold a stand-alone upfront presentation, instead participating in the agency upfront dinners alongside Viacom’s other networks.

Lee said she plans to stay involved in the music industry and will continue to fight for diversity and inclusion through her work with Time’s Up and The Recording Academy Diversity & Inclusion Task Force.

“In addition to the legacy I have built for BET Networks in the media landscape, I am also extremely proud of the legacy of values that I helped to instill at the network during my tenure. My belief that we can do well and do good has been a guiding principle and one that I hope you will continue after my departure,” Lee said.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.