BET CEO Debra Lee on television for a black audience

Chairman and CEO of BET Networks Debra Lee speaks onstage at Debra Lee's Pre-BET Awards Celebration during the 2012 BET Awards at Union Station on June 30, 2012 in Los Angeles, Calif.

Kai Ryssdal: I was up in Aspen, Colo., a couple of weeks ago for the annual Aspen Ideas Festival. Just like it sounds -- a place where big ideas are talked about. Then talked about some more.

I had a chance sit down with Debra Lee while I was there. She's the president and CEO of BET Networks, better known as Black Entertainment Television. It's doing pretty well. Programming is on in more than 90 million homes.

But the first thing I wanted to know was what role she thinks BET has in this society in 2012.

Debra Lee: Well, that's a very interesting question. BET's been around for 32 years, and our role today is the same as it's always been, is to provide a platform for African American programming and news and information for our audience. Even with the addition of all the new channels and cable and satellite and digital, there is still very few outlets that target African Americans. So BET is still very needed -- and that's proven by our ratings, which are growing every year.

Ryssdal: Because, we should say, you're doing what a lot of cable channels have done, which is invest in original programming.

Lee: Yes.

Ryssdal: You in your tenure here have turned this thing around a little bit.

Lee: Our audience was demanding high-quality, original programming. You know, we could run re-airs of "The Cosby Show" all day long, but they were like, 'Why aren't you like CBS, NBC and ABC?'

Ryssdal: Well you know, it's interesting that you bring up "The Cosby Show," right? Because that's the iconic 'Oh here's black television.'

Lee: Right, right. That was the '80s.

Ryssdal: Right, which was the '80s on NBC, in the middle of a bunch of white programming. And now in 2012, you look at "The Cosby Show," and you're like, wow, that's just so 30 years ago.

Lee: Right. Well right after "The Cosby Show," there were a lot of spinoffs, and of course, you know, when something does well, everyone copies it. But unfortunately, those days went away quickly, and it's still rare to have a show on the three broadcast networks that has a black cast.

Ryssdal: Speaking of which, who's your competition then?

Lee: Everyone. Anyone that's fighting for eyeballs, whether it's a cable network, video game, movie theater -- I define my competition as any entertainment outlet that's fighting for eyeballs.

Ryssdal: What's it like, though, to program for an audience -- and I get that you're not a programmer, right? You're an executive thinking bigger thoughts, but what's it like to program for an audience that is varied by income, varied by wealth, varied by education levels, and the unifying factor is race? How do you wrap your brain around that one?

Lee: It's very difficult.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I bet.

Lee: Because we're not a monolithic audience. Sometimes advertisers treat us that way, or other networks treat us that way. So we try to have a well-rounded programming slate to be attractive to male, female, different income levels, different educational levels. So you know, it's a challenge. We've had huge success with our specials: the BET Awards, BET Honors, "Black Girls Rock!"

Ryssdal: Along those lines, do you feel an obligation to present a positive image of black culture? Which is kind of a loaded question.

Lee: It is. I think "positive" is a loaded word.

Ryssdal: Fair enough.

Lee: I would rather use the word "realistic." So you know, not all negative, not at all stereotypical, but people in our community have issues. And we should deal with those issues. And so we take the approach that if there's a storyline or something happening in a sitcom or drama -- we're getting into the drama business and movie of the week -- you know, we should offer our community a resolution. We're not going to be the black PBS, that's not what we're trying to do. I'm not trying to, you know, pretend that we live in a world that's not real. But we want the images to be realistic.

Ryssdal: Debra Lee, thanks very much.

Lee: Great, thank you.

Ryssdal: Debra Lee, the CEO of BET Networks, in Aspen, Colo., a couple of weeks ago. There are conversations from other corner offices -- none quite as picturesque, though -- here.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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