Editor’s Note: BET chief Debra Lee has long been a vocal proponent for diversity. She’s not satisfied with the progress cable has made, not even on the programming side, she told us. Yet as BET and NAMIC celebrate 30th birthdays, Lee is upbeat about NAMIC’s future and that of other associations, although they must fine-tune their missions. Lee is excited by BET’s global growth prospects and Ed Gordon’s return to the network. An edited transcript of her interview with Seth Arenstein from mid-August is presented below.
BET AT AGE 30
CableFAX: What is the state of BET at age 30?
Debra Lee: 2009 was BET’s best year for ratings, and 2010 looks to be even better, so it’s a great way to celebrate our 30th…a few years ago we did a brand strategy, where we wanted to take the network and the audience has been responding to that…I am most excited about our original programming…we began that about 5 years ago …we are on the verge of premiering our first two scripted original comedies…The Game, which first ran on the CW and we’re bringing it back…and we have one produced with Queen Latifah’s production company called Staying Together. They’ll both be premiering in 2011….We began as largely a music network with some syndicated product in between, we had to get to a point where the business model worked and we’re there now, so I’m very excited about it….we are in the black programming market all the time, we don’t come in and out of it.
Our specials are doing well, we just had our BET Awards at the end of June and we had 7.5mln viewers;, that made it the top-rated cable special to date, I believe…last year we had 10 mln viewers, that was the Michael Jackson tribute…so BET is in a fabulous place and I’m really excited about where we are and the direction we are going…
Centric is doing well, too. It’s aimed at a slightly older audience, we call them grown and sexy…we had our first 2 original programs on it last year and it’s working well…I think it’s going to be a very strong 2nd network for us…
We have many other platforms, BET.com and mobile, we have international distribution, we have 14mln viewers in the UK, we’re in 28 countries in Africa, we just launched Mo’ Nique and some other shows in the Middle East, so everything is growing and I have a great team in place and they’re creating the type of content we need for these platforms….
CableFAX: Where will BET be in 5 years? You were at TCA a few years back and mentioned news and public affairs.
DL: On original programming I want to continue that…and news is very important to us…we just announced that Ed Gordon is coming back, his new weekly show will premiere in early October he’ll be doing a quarterly show, some big interview shows….I want to continue with scripted programming, maybe we can get into dramas… I want to keep growing the platforms, we are focusing on Centric right now, increasing its ratings, we are focusing more on marketing so we can attract more viewers to BET… we tend to do well with viewers who know about our programming, we promote during our programming, but we really need to get the word out to new viewers that BET is changing and has all this great new programming…
I’d love to get into films…and any other products that make sense…we have the best brand in the African-American community and not just among African Americans, but among other folks who want to experience African-American culture and I see those numbers growing…so we’re just going to continue to push.
We see a big opportunity in International growth, we are in 53 countries…we just took Wendy Williams to the UK…there’s really a growing appetite for black entertainment in many parts of the world, we see a lot more room for growth there…so the main priorities are to keep BET moving in the direction it is, grow Centric, BET.com…we are very excited about broadband…we are the only cable programmer to apply for the Commerce Department’s BTOP program for broadband adoption. We think if we can create the kind of broadband programming that appeals to our audience we can encourage African Americans to adopt broadband, which is one of the priorities of this Administration…what personally excites me about broadband is the infinite nature of it. We can do things on diabetes, education other health concerns, the kind of programming that might not work on a 24-hr cable network but could work on a digital platform, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed, hoping we get some funding from the government for that…
We want to be everywhere our audience is, whether it’s on mobile phones or iPads, I say that just because I got one yesterday for my birthday.
CableFAX: Now you have to learn to use it.
DL: (Laughter) Yes. The learning curve is always the toughest, but I’m going to learn it. This is my week to learn because otherwise before I learn they’ll have something else out (laughter).
CableFAX: The common wisdom is that programmers have done a pretty good job in providing opportunities for women and minorities, but that cable generally doesn’t do as good a job as the programmers. And we seem to talk about just once a year. Where would you like to see things go?
DL: Your assessment is true; the programmers have made more progress. But on the programming side there’s a lot more that needs to be done. There are maybe a handful of female CEOs, 2 or 3….
My definition of diversity is that it should be across the board. You shouldn’t have to look to BET or Lifetime and say ‘Well there’s an African American there, or there’s a woman.’ You know, that’s great and I love what I do. But it’s important that we have minority representation at the other networks, not just at the networks that target our community. But I think one of the great things about cable is that diversity is important from the programming side because that was one of the things that cable grew up on. First we could bring you 80 channels, now we can bring you 500 channels. The programmers created niche programs and really attracted this audience, the minority audience, and I think that’s helped cable on the executive side. But I think there’s a long way to go and we can’t stop talking about it. And as you say, we shouldn’t just talk about it once a year.
I was always a big proponent of it when I was on the NCTA board and still through all the things I do for them. You know all these organizations, like NAMIC and WICT and Emma Bowen are very important. We still need to get diversity through the ranks and get people in the lower levels, but one of my particular interests is making sure we have women and minorities in the C suites. Unless we’re in decision making positions you can’t really say diversity has worked in the cable industry.
And when people complain there’s not enough programming [for minorities] or they want more programming, the only way to do that is to have more [minority] people in decision making roles. It’s the same line of reasoning on the cable operator side.
I think you are going to see more diversity growth as operators start merging with the programming side, as you see with Comcast and NBC. I think cable operators really need to look hard inside and to continue to make this a focus. The scary thing for me is that I see the growing feeling that we’ve accomplished a lot so we don’t have to focus on it as much. I think that is totally not true. There’s still a lot to be done. And the only way you get it done is by focusing on it.
CableFAX: But with NCTA’s COR report, will the associations continue to exist?
DL: I think they will continue to exist. I was part of the committee at NCTA that was looking at some of these groups. I think the feeling from the board is that they really want these groups to exist but they want them to focus on things that are successful and they want some rationale to the whole system so the companies are not just giving, giving, giving and not really understanding what they are getting back for it. I think when the whole process is done, I think, or at least I am hoping, there is a rationale brought to it. These organizations have to exist. They are the way we train our executives. Our employees get to talk about their issues and get the training that companies aren’t necessarily doing. So I don’t buy the approach that the companies are doing enough so we don’t need these organizations. I think that’s absolutely not true. But I do think there has to be a rational approach so that every other month there is a new dinner that no one understands. So I think most of the organizations will continue to exist, although some of them may be in a different format. The NCTA board has been trying to rationalize the activities, the conventions and there has been some progress and missteps at the same time. Hopefully they’ll get that under control in the next few months.
CableFAX: So you are happy to see Diversity Week return?
DL: Oh, yes. Taking Kaitz out of NY was not a good idea. I think having Diversity Week makes sense. As I said, there was some trial and error, but I’m glad to see it back.
CableFAX: When we talk about women running cable operators, we’re speaking of only a few. For big cable, there’s just one. Please discuss that. Also, when will we know diversity has arrived, when we look at a female CEO and just see her as a CEO?
DL: Yes, I think that’s right and I think it will take us a while to get there. I don’t see the pipeline on the cable operator side. And maybe I’m just not closely connected to it, but I look at the NCTA board and see who makes that up and it’s a network of men. It just doesn’t seem to have welcomed women into its ranks yet and I don’t know why that is. So, there‘s a lot of work that needs to be done there, and in the leadership of the cable industry in general, on the programming side and the cable operator side, but particularly on the cable operator side.
Until the CEOs say ‘This is a priority and I’m going to do it’ you can have all Diversity Weeks that we want and it’s not going to make a difference. You can have people on panels, and I’ve been on a million of them, saying that this is important and you have to make a commitment and the time is now. You have to look around at your senior staff meetings and if there aren’t women in there you just have to work to get them in there and not be satisfied until you do.
I just don’t know what’s taking us so long on the cable operator side. I don’t know if it’s that women are more attracted to the programming side or the existence of family ownership for a long time on the cable operator side slowed it down there, but it’s something this industry really needs to work on it.
CableFAX: But would you see cable has come a long way on diversity in the past 10 years?
DL: I don’t think we’ve come a long way, I think we’ve made some progress. I don’t think we’ve come as far as I’d have liked to see us come in the past 10 years. Every time there’s a defection, every time a woman or an Hispanic leaves you have to replace them, so the numbers aren’t necessarily growing, that’s the concern. We need to do much more. There’s been some progress over the past 20 years, but not as much as I’d like to have seen.
BET DOCUMENTARIES AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS
CableFAX: You’re about to premiere your first music documentary, My Mic Sounds Nice. Do you plan more?
DL: Yes, I’d like to…we’ve been around for 30 years and we can be the authority on what’s been happening in the music industry. We should be able to do a lot more in the music documentary area. And it’s what our audience wants to see. That’s one of the reasons why our specials do so great. We have the background and the expertise, we know our audience better than anyone else…I’ve heard so many people say how wonderful and moving our BET Awards was this year, whole families were watching it together and were up dancing to it. We had the old school in, but we also had the hottest new acts. So now we’ve put in Shine The Light moments in, whether we are shining the light on people in education or people in the music industry you may not have heard of yet, so after doing the BET awards for 10 years and music shows for 30 years, we really have a perspective to bring and I’m really excited that we’re taking a look back and taking a deeper dive into the music industry.
CableFAX: What about public affairs?
DL: As I said I’m excited about Ed coming back and I know we bring a different perspective to the news. We are a news-heavy country with the news networks…what we’ve been struggling with in the past few years is how do you make a weekly program work? How do you make news work on a digital platform? When news happens we want to be the first to bring it to our audience whether it’s on Blackberrys or mobile phones or a scroll on our network. That’s very important, especially now with our first African American president. And we’re proud of the role we played in helping to get him elected, encouraging our audience to go out and vote, by giving him a platform. Now it’s very important for us to cover this Administration and what he’s trying to do. So we’ve had Town Halls on health care or education, things that are important to our community. That’s going to continue to be important to us. It is harder to do because it’s not always the highest rated programming but we have a commitment to it and we have to continue to find a way to make it interesting.
Ed’s first interview, I think, is with Steve Harvey, who’s very big in our community. He may not sit down with Larry King or Barbara Walters. It’s important for Ed to get to those kinds of celebrities and politicians to give our audience a perspective on these things. So public affairs are very important to us and with Ed coming back and all the other news briefs we do we’re always ready to turn a dime. It’s kind of interesting with our first African-American president, because every time he gives a speech we want to be there. And we’ve been doing a lot of that on Centric and bet.com, because you don’t necessarily want to break in to BET programming. The other thing we do that has worked really well is work these things into our regular programming. If you put on a news special a 17-year-old guy might not watch it, but if you put something on Sean Bell or Jena Six on 106 & Park there’s a higher probability that they’ll see that and watch it. I saw Mary Poppins the other night. It’s like ‘Just a Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down.’ As you said, documentaries are a good way to do that. We just have to make them interesting and get the audience to watch them.