The Changing Face of BET

CEO Debra Lee discusses BET’s growth and what’s ahead for the network. Hint: new shows!

Posted: 04/21/2011 12:08 PM EDT

The cast of Reed Between the Lines, from left: Tracee Ellis Ross, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Nadji Jeter, Zoe Soul, Melissa De Sousa and Anna Maria Horsford at the 2011 BET Upfront Presentation.(Photo: Brad Barket/PictureGroup)

When BET Networks CEO Debra Lee took the helm in 2005, she knew changes were needed for the channel. Twenty-five years after its inception, the network was still dedicating blocks of time to movies and reruns, but not much original programming.

“Viewership has always been loyal, and they wanted us to grow as a network similar to the way a lot of the other networks were growing,” Lee told BET.com. “So the challenge for me as the new CEO was, 'How do we invest in original programming and still keep the business profitable and growing?'”

Fast-forward to 2011 and BET is riding high, coming off a record-setting year in ratings and a largely successful season of The Game and Let’s Stay Together, two original sitcoms. January’s premiere of The Game brought a record 7.7 million viewers to the network, far exceeding expectations for a show the CW yanked off the air two years ago.

At Wednesday’s Upfront Presentation in New York, the network announced that both series will be returning for new seasons. In addition to the returning programs, BET unveiled Reed Between the Lines, a sitcom starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm Jamal-Warner about a blended family going through life’s ups and downs. The dramatic series Lenox Ave. about three friends growing up in Harlem is back as well.

BET will also be moving into the thriller genre with Asylum, about a team of doctors at the infamous St. Dympha Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

The success and wide range of new programs makes a larger statement. “African-Americans will show up for good quality programming,” Lee says.

Original sitcoms were just part of the larger plan for the network sculpted by Lee following her arrival at the helm.

“About three years ago we embarked on a new brand strategy where we listened to our audience, our advertisers, our affiliates, and we spent a lot of time internally thinking about where we wanted to take the network,” she said. “We came up with the approach that we wanted to respect, reflect and elevate our audience.”

That meant that in addition to original sitcoms, reality programming that focused on family (like Being Terry Kennedy, The Family Crews and Toya: A Family Affair) was also important to include in the lineup, because BET wanted to show different kinds of images of African-Americans and explore the dynamics of family, Lee said.

The addition of these programs, along with newer specials like Black Girls Rock and BET Honors, helped to broaden the network’s audience, appealing to older and non-African-American viewers, she said.

In the future, Lee expects to see the same growth in reality and sitcom programming with the inclusion of dramas and documentaries such as The Message: The History of Hip-Hop, a look into the cultural phenomenon that grew out of the music.

“The great news is that we’re here now,” Lee said, referencing the network’s most recent successes. “It’s an exciting time to be at BET Networks.”

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