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Debra Lee Promises New Look BET; Wants To Attract Larger Black Audience w/o Offending

by Tambay A. Obenson
August 14, 2011 6:36 AM
27 Comments
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When I became CEO I had to define my vision for the company. How do we make our brand distinct and compete with other networks? I realized it was time to focus on original programming... Our new brand strategy: We respect, reflect and elevate our audience. They want to be entertained, but they also want to be inspired. For awhile we went too hard-edge. We had a lot of criticism when we were primarily airing music videos, which a lot of people felt were derogatory towards women. We heard that loud and clear... Our programming filter now is: It has to have a message, can’t be derogatory and has to show positive images. That doesn’t mean that it’s unreal or fake. We’re not going to be the PBS of black television. We still have to get ratings.

BET CEO Debra Lee speaking with Forbes magazine, posted a few days ago; the conversation centered on how she plans to "attract a larger black audience, without offending them, given the strong criticism the network has been on the receiving end of for many years now.

I haven't watched BET in ages; at the moment, it's partly because I don't have cable TV; but, even when I did, I just didn't watch the network. In fact, I'd say that the last time I watched BET with any regularity must have been in the early to mid-1990s. And I've had very little reason to watch since then, which maybe is more a function of my aging and outgrowing their programming than anything else. But even with this reinvention Debra Lee is in the early stages of, with the network's commitment to original programming (The Game, Let's Stay Together, and the upcoming Reed Between the Lines, as well as their acquisition of a few web series which may or may not become part of their regular TV programming), I'm still not encouraged to watch BET, as I still don't think I'm in its target audience.

I'm not sure what this "larger audience" that Debra Lee wants to attract looks like; but if I'm to be in that group, it'll take a lot more than what's currently being offered, and what's on the network's immediate horizon, to get my attention. But maybe this is just the beginning of a much bolder, varied slate of programming choices to come... I don't know.

Debra Lee became President and CEO of the company in 2005, so she's had a 6-year run. Let's see how the next 6 years go. Though I think she should be less worried about programming with "a message," or "positive images," or "offending people;" I hear words like that and I tune out. Instead just look like you're actually interested in being inventive, fresh, taking some risks, making a few bold strokes, mixed in with its already popular string of shows, and I think heads will turn.

Also, there's nothing wrong with the occasional PBS-type news or documentary series. I've watched many a Frontline investigative episode courtesy of PBS.

So maybe it's a network searching for an identity. I'd actually rather have it in flux than settled and comfortable.

We'll see...

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27 Comments

  • Leslie Howard | August 22, 2011 6:28 AMReply

    I belong to a Facebook group that recently called for the Boycott of BET after the airing of the BET Awards. BET is an embarassment to Black people with its degrading videos which too often depict African-American in the most degrading images from thugs to drugs dealers and prostitutes. Even shows like the , The Game could do a lot better when it comes to depicting Blacks, especially our women. How about airing some news programming or a documentary like Lousi Gates-What's wrong with that?. We do have minds as black people and we do think. If BET wants better rating and hence more ad revenue than it needs to create programming that attracts a more mature upscale audience. There are enough black actors and writers and directors to do this if the network is serious, but somehow I seriously doubt that it is. Time will tell

  • William | August 21, 2011 8:23 AMReply

    The only time i watch BET is when they broadcast one of there adwards shows & the show the GAME. Everything else is just trash, now TV one features quality black programming. One of my favorite shows was Noah's Arc now that would be an entertaining show to watch, it was funny and well written. But since it was about "Gay" people i'am sure we wont be seeing that. Even the gay channel logo kicked it off because it didnt appeal to the white gay community. Wouldnt it be great if they had an A-list Atlanta? featuring a cast of black men? on BET.

  • JMac | August 16, 2011 8:17 AMReply

    E Lynn Harris's books are popular for the wrong reason [FEAR] and I don't think I have to expound on that. Plus, it's one thing to read a book about that topic and another to see it being recreated on screen. But who knows? How many of them watched R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet and loved it? Okay I did but I just thought it was ingenious to make a nonstop R&B/classical music soap opera.

    And if I yelled into a crowd of black women down here on how they feel about Noah's Arc, half would think I'm talking about the bible story and the rest would think I'm referring to the baby linen theme. If BET isn't getting enough viewers with the hetero crap they've got now, going into the gay/lesbian arena isn't going to improve things and will probably hurt. There just aren't that many gay blacks to support one network. And not enough black heteros to watch gay shows.

    Everybody keeps talking about the Baby Boomers and how they outnumber the rest of us. That's who BET needs to go to for a large influx of viewers. They're sitting at home all day, wanting something to watch other than reruns of Good Times and The Jeffersons and Judge Joe Brown. More money in the bank than the credit disabled 18-34 demographic. That makes more financial sense.... but those types don't typically watch shows with gay people unless the minor gay character is comic relief.

  • CareyCarey | August 16, 2011 4:36 AMReply

    Incumbent within most images, i.e., art, poetry, TV, books, movies etc, there’s embedded messages. Some of them are loud and clear. Albeit, they may not be “right”, nevertheless, those images may project a tantalizing option and appeal. When I think of the minds of our young and naturally inquisitive, I worry about the power of television and movies as they project images of what may seem cool and acceptable behavior. Hey, if everyone is doing it (adults too), it must be right - right?

    Carry on...

  • CareyCarey | August 16, 2011 3:18 AMReply

    I didn't want to address Orville's issue b/c... well... I knew it would cause some sort of "blast", but I have to agree with JMac. Now I certainly do not represent the black race but I lived knee deep in black culture - for a grip - and I am around diverse groups of black folks on a weekly/daily bases. HIstory and experience tells me that black folks by and large, do not ingratiate the homosexual lifestyle. Laws may have been passed that give them some basic human rights and E Lynn Harris was a popular author, but no no, BET would catch flack from Orville’s suggestion.

    Ask any gay person how much hell they catch from family and friends and strangers come all - on a daily bases - and then y’all have your answers.

    Now I am thinking about what Laura said: “Don’t want to hijack the thread. But my view is that tv it teaches people their “places” in the world. When my oldest daughter was in 3rd grade she wanted to walk around wearing midriff tops. She was not getting it from me. (I’m about as plain jane as one can get) I realize that she was getting it from advertisement on the shows on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel.

    Those shows taught my kids that nothing is more important than kids doing whatever they wanted to do and kids getting whatever they wanted to get. It felt like those shows were training videos for unabashed selfishness and me, me -ism.

    if you look at the kids shows on the two network the parental figures a basically non existent. I did not like the message they were sending. My kids were absorbing the messages and I decided to eliminate those “kids” from their tv viewing diet.
    Now my kids watch Netflix (not on school nights). They watch a wide range of shows. None of it from the above networks I’d mentioned. (Their favorites are Monk, Psych, Avatar -The Last Airbender, Spongebob and Fruits Basket—Japanese anime series)
    It’s interesting to see tv affect on a child’s mind”


    Okay, juxtapose “homosexuality and gay life” into that thought, and I again agree with Laura and JMac.

  • Orville | August 16, 2011 1:57 AMReply

    How do you know what black people like J Mac did you do a survey of every black person on the planet? Noah's Arc was a huge success and E Lynn Harris books are very popular with heterosexual black women. So, I think if BET really wanted to take a chance they need to appeal to black people that are not heterosexual or under the age of 25.

  • JMac | August 16, 2011 1:47 AMReply

    BET safe? Nah. It strives for the lowest, basest, most demeaning entertainment out there.

    The only type of Gay/Lesbian show most black people would watch is gay version of Divorce Court. If they're trying to compete with Tyler Perry, they definitely won't go that route. On second thought, they wouldn't do that even if they weren't competing. It'd be a great way for the network to disappear.

  • Orville | August 15, 2011 11:55 AMReply

    My problem with BET is I feel the network is a bit too safe, too heterosexual, and too preachy. If BET really wants to reach a larger audience they should be trying to reach the black gay and lesbian market. BET obviously doesn't care about black gays and lesbians because in their heterosexist eyes we don't exist. So it will be more straight stuff like The Game or Let's Stay Together.

    BET has a real opportunity to take a chance and a risk. I would love to see the black gay show Noah's Arc on BET but I doubt that would happen. Noah's Arc got huge rating son MTV LOGO. Noah's Arc was really groundbreaking a TV show about young black gay men.

  • Tombs | August 15, 2011 4:33 AMReply

    What is she finally going to allow her children to watch BET?
    http://www.whataboutourdaughters.com/waod/tag/debra-lee

  • Laura | August 15, 2011 4:05 AMReply

    Hey Carey Carey

    Don't want to hijack the thread. But my view is that tv it teaches people their "places" in the world. When my oldest daughter was in 3rd grade she wanted to walk around wearing midriff tops. She was not getting it from me. (I'm about as plain jane as one can get) I realize that she was getting it from advertisement on the shows on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. (Sometimes I feel that pedophiles are Nickolodeon and The Disney channels' target market.)

    Those shows taught my kids that nothing is more important than kids doing whatever they wanted to do and kids getting whatever they wanted to get. It felt like those shows were training videos for unabashed selfishness and me, me -ism.

    If you look at the kids shows on the two network the parental figures a basically non existent. I did not like the message they were sending. My kids were absorbing the messages and I decided to eliminate those "kids" from their tv viewing diet.

    Now my kids watch Netflix (not on school nights). They watch a wide range of shows. None of it from the above networks I'd mentioned. (Their favorites are Monk, Psych, Avatar -The Last Airbender, Spongebob and Fruits Basket --Japanese anime series)

    It's interesting to see tv affect on a child's mind.

  • Susan | August 15, 2011 3:47 AMReply

    Black people are not the only ones who watch BET. They have it on a lot of non predminately black college campuses. Why do you thing Justin Bieber was on several award shows . BET used to have a larger and more varied black audience when they had original programing for various demographics , but once they started catering to the 18 -24 it was downhil from there.

  • Susan | August 15, 2011 3:44 AMReply

    Black people are not the only ones who watch BET. They have it on a lot of non predminately black college campuses. Why do you thing Justin Bieber was on several award shows .

  • sandra | August 14, 2011 12:44 PMReply

    Up until this point, BET has done as good a job of representing the black experience as FOX News.

  • Ghost | August 14, 2011 12:24 PMReply

    “attract a larger black audience, without offending them”
    ---------------------------------
    Translation-"Hood folks are NOT bringing in the MONEY that we want and we need the "uppity negro" to start watching.

    They want the folks asking these questions-

    Where was the RIP for Dwayne McDuffie-who did what Tyler Perry was PRAISED for employing black folks? Heck McDuffie had 4 hit tv shows-Static Shock being one.

    Where are the black versions (and I hate saying that) of Dance Moms, Young Broke & Beautful, Commercial Kings and other reality shows that showcase business owners?

    Where are the original programs and movies at?

    What is the issue with BET for blacks who choose not to do coonfest films or stay in trouble with the law?

    Where is the black college sports?

    They want more MONEY and the ability to charge more for ad spots. Notice certain products are never promoted on BET?

  • CareyCarey | August 14, 2011 11:26 AMReply

    And btw, in 30 minutes, me and my woman are going to turn on BET and watch Sunday'sBest. Oh yeah, and for those who watch it, I have my winner picked out.

    I'm gonna say the last brotha does not have a chance, and he shouldn't have made it this far, imo.

  • CareyCarey | August 14, 2011 11:10 AMReply

    Ooooooh, Holy mackerel! Laura, and how you do (trying to do my best Kingfish)


    I should have known it. Well, based on some of your past posts, I thought you were a open-mined person but a no nonsense person as well. Your words have the voice of a “teacher”, even if you’re only teaching your children.

    So excuse me for quoting you to lead/enhance my opinion.

    But I have to ask (hope I’m not getting to far off topic) to what degree do you believe television programming effects/affects the child’s growing and learning process? I agree that their minds are like soft wet fertile soil... very ripe and accepting of new seeds, however, do you believe or what do you believe are the tantamount issues that impede and/or enriches their learning process? I have an opinion (of course I do) but I want to hear your thoughts (and others) on the affects of TV programming. And hold up, if children do watch “too much” TV of any variety, do you think they are doomed to failure or, are their antidotes?

  • Laura | August 14, 2011 10:13 AMReply

    Hey Carey Carey

    "How you doin' "(trying to do my best Wendy Williams)

    Thanks for quoting me. However, (you know how I get) the above idea that I mention apply to Black indie film making. Kinda of a DYI approach to filmmaking. That would encompass the making, distribution and promotion of Black film.

    It does not apply to basic cable television shows. (My children are not allowed to watch MTV, BET, VH1, and the Disney Channel --yes even the Disney Channel).

    I don't watch these channels because of the crap they air. I am a type of person who would write advertising sponsors if they aired hoodrat film on the tube.

  • Zeus | August 14, 2011 10:07 AMReply

    Hmmm...hopefully she isn't blowing smoke. For me, the jury is still out.



    http://vimeo.com/26458504

  • Haq | August 14, 2011 10:06 AMReply

    BET can use the new tagline " All Black Everything"

  • sandra | August 14, 2011 10:04 AMReply

    When I think of BET, I think of that quote from the MONEYBALL trailer (just replace teams with networks):

    "There are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there's fifty feet of crap. And then there's us."

  • Haq | August 14, 2011 10:03 AMReply

    How can I get in touch with her? What we need BET to be is a channel of variety that is catered towards black. We need a show for every aspect of black life. A cable channel that is like the whole of cable viewing. A history program, sports program, design program like one that finds used furniture and refurbishes them. News program with radical discussion, like a Bill Maher show. Entertainment tonight. Gameshows like jeopardy. Sports shows from ghetto ball courts, to indoor football. We need to look at our society and see where we are still being left behind and create venu's that will shine a light on us. People are always saying that BET doesn't pay enough. That may be true but i know that most filmmakers like myself and even more established ones would love a venu for their exposure. Like a weekly movie night. A web series programming night. These people are already producing their own shows and getting them seen is paramount. She really has a opportunity for BET to not only become a great channel but one that will also train people for future programming.

  • CareyCarey | August 14, 2011 9:51 AMReply

    Of course I have to get my big-fat black lips in the middle of this discussion. But wait, yo eyes may shine and your teeth may grin, but what I'm about to say... might be a sin... for some black folks.

    Okay, let me start right here... “attract a larger black audience, without offending them"

    Oh boy, now that's a formidable task for sure. Well, within the belly of the beast - the offended black folks - there lies a vast array of black faces, opinions and such, who all don't see eye to eye. C'mon now, how many time have we seen those on one side say "that mess is nothing but coonery, yet the other side, they says, "that sh*t is dope and funny as hell". Then there are the... ahh... I hate to say it (don’t want to get run out of town), but what some would consider as snobs that will never ingratiate anything that they believe is beneath them. Not to mention the natural divide between old school black people and the new school fools. they will seldom come to agreement on what’s “positive”. That reminds me, WTH does that mean anyway? You know, a positive image of a black person? Is that to say that any black image on the screen cannot have flaws. Is comedy then off the table? Does the film or sitcom have to have a “positive ending? Does the beast want strictly message driven programming of the “sit down children and let grandpa tell you about a day gone by” variety?

    Now I have to borrow something from another tread. You might have seen it. It goes something like...

    “***sneaking in the back door hoping that Sergio doesn’t notice me***
    Let me say another thing. I have no problems with hoodrats making those hoodrat movies. Not because the films are good (I might use them as coasters or door stops) nor I like the idea of hood rats creating any moving images.
    I look at them as part of continuum of Blacks trying to create their own images. We are at the beginning in this digital film technology era. And at the beginning there will be film sludge. Think about it in the terms of theory of evolution”

    Yep, those are Laura’s words. Is she in the belly of the beast? Sure she is but I believe she’s in the minority, when it comes to acceptance and open-mindedness. There’s a lot of black voices down there, and many of them will never sing in harmony.

    So, attract what!? Without offending whom!? I’d rather believe there will one day be a black man as President of The United States before I took on the job of finding that ambiguous crowd. **eyebrow raised**

  • JMac | August 14, 2011 8:32 AMReply

    Damn babatunde you beat me to the punch!

  • Black Butterfly | August 14, 2011 8:32 AMReply

    I expect big talk and not much difference as usual.

  • JMac | August 14, 2011 8:32 AMReply

    "We’re not going to be the PBS of black television. We still have to get ratings."

    In other words, I should still keep the hell away from BET.

    Ha, the interviewer asked her the burden of responsibility question and she claims she accepted it... now. Probably the news about Tyler Perry's network is making BET quake in their boots. There's a silver lining behind every dark cloud.

  • Babatunde | August 14, 2011 8:23 AMReply

    Just another thought TP got them shook!!!Not that he programing promises to be any better.

  • Babatunde | August 14, 2011 8:18 AMReply

    That's a huge step for them, give it up to boondocks and everyone that kept the pressure on. Now, that being said I really doubt we will see any substance there last time, Maybe another Tavis or Teen Summit until the heat dies down and they will claim no advertising, we seen it all before.

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