Debra Lee is leaving her position as chairman and CEO of BET Networks after a 32-year career with the Viacom-owned company, BET.com reported Thursday.
“Together, we have built a world-class brand that connects with fans through the power of storytelling and we have attracted and nurtured top talent across the globe,” Lee wrote in a letter to staff.
“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,” she added.
Lee, whose last day will be Monday, May 28, joined the cable network in 1986 as its first in-house counsel. She rose to president and COO in 1996, before assuming her current role in 2005.
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During her tenure, BET has remained the top-rated network with African-American viewers for the last 17 years.
Among her signature accomplishments was the network’s acquisition of The Game. The dramedy, which originally aired on UPN, launched on BET in 2014 and became the most-watched sitcom premiere in cable TV history, with more than 7.5 million viewers.
In 2017, The New Edition Story was also a major hit, bringing in more than 28 million viewers between its premiere and encore airings, “making it the highest-rated TV biopic of all time,” according to BET.
Lee also oversaw the launch of BET.com and developed BET Her, billed as “the first network for African-American women.” In addition, she oversaw creation of the BET Awards, now entering its 18th year (Jamie Foxx is set to host next month’s show in Los Angeles).
She gave up day-to-day control of BET in December when Scott Mills was appointed president.
Her departure comes as Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, who came on board last year, continues major personnel changes across the company’s divisions.
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“Debra’s vision and creativity have cemented BET Networks as a premier network for African Americans and lovers of black culture,” Bakish said in a statement. “While we will all miss Debra tremendously, we respect her decision and understand her desire to leave at the very top of the game.”
Below is Debra Lee’s full statement.
“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.
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. Together, we have built a world-class brand that connects with fans through the power of storytelling and we have attracted and nurtured top talent across the globe.
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.
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.”