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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act August 14, 2011 at 6:36AM

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.
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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...

This article is related to: Television, Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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