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BET Networks chief Debra Lee steps down as executive shake-up continues

2018 Modern Jazz Social
Debra Lee, the chief executive officer of BET, is photographed at the 2018 Modern Jazz Social at the Museum of Modern Art on April 3 in New York.
(Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images)

The executive-level turnover at BET Networks continued on Thursday, with the top boss at the Viacom-owned network stepping down after a 13-year tenure.

BET announced that Chairman and Chief Executive Debra Lee will be leaving the company effective Monday.

Lee began her career with the network as its first vice president and general counsel in 1986 and was promoted to president and chief operating officer 10 years later. She was named chairman and CEO in 2005.

New York-based BET didn’t provide a reason for Lee’s departure, but cited her contributions.


During her tenure, BET launched such shows as “Being Mary Jane,” “The Real Husbands of Hollywood” and “In Contempt.”

“Lee’s focus on diverse, high-quality scripted programming that positively highlights the African-American experience has set BET Networks apart from other brands desperate to reach the coveted black audience,” the company said in Thursday’s announcement.

Lee’s departure is the latest executive shake-up at BET since Bob Bakish took over as CEO of parent company Viacom in late 2016.

BET executives Stephen Hill and Zola Mashariki left the network a year ago. Mashariki sued BET and Viacom, alleging discrimination, but the suit eventually was settled.


Other Viacom-owned properties also have seen leadership changes since Bakish became CEO and promised to reinvigorate the media conglomerate. Brad Grey left his position as the head of Paramount in early 2017. Cable channels including Spike (now the Paramount Network), TV Land, MTV and Comedy Central also have seen executives depart or transfer to other Viacom properties.

BET has catered to African American audiences since its inception in 1980. But like many cable channels, it has struggled to retain viewers as younger audiences gravitate toward streaming options. In addition to its flagship channel, BET Networks also includes sister channels such as BET Hip-Hop and BET Her.

Viacom said in its announcement Thursday that Lee plans to stay involved in the media industry and remain on corporate and nonprofit boards. In addition, the company said she plans to continue her commitment to diversity and inclusion through her work with Times Up and the Recording Academy’s diversity and inclusion task force.

Lee said in a statement: “I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude to our parent company, Viacom, for their continued belief in the power of the BET brand and their unwavering support of my long and fulfilling career here. I would especially like to thank Bob Bakish for supporting me as I start the next chapter in this exciting journey.”

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT


2:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from BET.


This article was originally published at 2:10 p.m.

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