Washington, DC (BlackNews.com) - BET Founder and CEO Robert L. Johnson today formally announced the appointment of Debra L. Lee, currently President and Chief Operating Officer, as his successor as the company's CEO effective immediately. Johnson takes the title of Chairman, with plans to retire from the company he founded in 1980 by January 2006. Lee will assume the title of Chairman and CEO following Johnson's retirement next year.
"I could not have chosen a better chief executive and outstanding leader to succeed me at BET than Debra Lee, and that's what makes this announcement so important to me and positive for BET's future," said Johnson. "Few executives in this industry have exhibited the ability to manage a unique growth company and shown the commitment to building a successful brand the way Debra has in her 19 years at BET. She mastered the cable programming industry long ago, and has a strong executive team in place to support her as she leads BET within the Viacom family."
"I am convinced that BET's legacy is in great hands with Debra at the helm," Johnson concluded.
Tom Freston, Co-President and Co-Chief Operating Officer of Viacom, said, "Bob Johnson is a true giant in our business, an entrepreneur of great vision and accomplishment. Bob built BET literally from an idea into a powerhouse. As he moves on to Chairman from CEO, he leaves a legendary legacy and, also, a very worthy successor in Debra Lee."
Freston added, "I couldn't be more thrilled that Debra is taking the helm of BET and am confident that, under her leadership, we'll have a smart and smooth transition. With nearly two decades of experience building a strong relationship with the African-American audience, I look forward to watching Debra make her mark and build on the great legacy of BET."
"When you've dedicated yourself to a mission like I have since coming to BET, it's truly gratifying when leaders the caliber of Bob Johnson and Tom Freston express without hesitation their utmost confidence in your ability," said Lee, whose new title until Johnson's retirement will be President and CEO. "The positive momentum and tremendous optimism for BET's future are the dividends of Bob's leadership over these 25 years and the strength of our executive team. I look forward to working with Tom on the continued development of BET as a powerful, successful enterprise for Viacom and its shareholders."
A Harvard-educated lawyer, Lee takes charge of BET at a time when the brand is the most dominant icon in the urban marketplace. The core BET channel is enjoying an all-time distribution high of more than 80 million homes in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. BET's business platform has expanded since its original founding on January 25, 1980 to include a diverse cadre of brand extensions: BET.com, the Number 1 Internet portal for African Americans; BET Digital Networks - BET Jazz, BET Gospel and BET Hip Hop, programming alternatives for niche genres; BET Event Productions, a full-scale event management and production company; and BET Books, the nation's leading publisher of African-American themed romance novels and other specialized fiction and nonfiction offerings.
Lee, 50, first joined BET as vice president and general counsel in 1986 after serving over five years as an attorney with Washington, DC-based law firm of Steptoe & Johnson. During her tenure, Lee has played pivotal roles in the company's history, including Executive Vice President and General Counsel of BET's legal affairs department; Corporate Secretary; and President and Publisher of BET's publishing division. Even the construction of BET's corporate headquarters campus in the Northeast corridor of Washington, DC was directly managed by Lee. She stepped up to the level of President and Chief Operating Officer in March 1996.
It was on Lee's watch that BET enjoyed some of its most explosive growth in ratings, revenue and popularity. She led the network's evolution beyond its successful music programming into original movies, documentaries, concert specials, news, late-night talk shows and public policy coverage. Lee also substantially expanded investment in marketing, advertising, research and development - strategies all geared to fend off upstarts and would-be challengers to BET's position as the market leader.
Lee's sphere of influence also extends well beyond BET where she is regarded as one of the country's top female executives in the realm of Fortune 500 companies. She serves on the corporate board of directors of global business icons Marriott International and Eastman Kodak Company, and regionally for Washington Gas & Light Company. Her business acumen and strategic approach to management make Lee a popular speaker and lecturer on a range of business topics.
The cable industry has long recognized Lee's importance as a corporate executive and industry ambassador. Lee serves on the boards of cable trade groups the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM). Industry awards and accolades haven't escaped Lee either as evidence by her receiving the 2003 Distinguished Vanguard Award for Leadership from the NCTA - a first for an African-American female executive; 2003 Positively Visionary Award from Cable Positive; 2003 Quasar Award from the National Association of Minorities in Communications; 2001 Woman of the Year Award from Women in Cable and Telecommunications; the Wonder Woman Award from Cablevision magazine; the Silver Star Award from American Women in Radio and Television; and frequent recognition among the industry's Hundred Heavy Hitters by Cable Fax magazine. Outside the cable industry, Lee has also received special recognition, including the 2005 Madame C. J. Walker Award from Ebony magazine for best exemplifying the entrepreneurial spirit of the pioneering Black businesswoman.
Lee earned her Jurist Doctorate at Harvard University Law School, while simultaneously earning a Masters Degree in Public Policy from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1980. She graduated from Brown University in 1976 with a Bachelors Degree in Political Science with an emphasis in Asian Politics.
ABOUT BET BET, a subsidiary of Viacom, Inc. (NYSE: VIA and VIA.B), is the nation's leading television network providing quality entertainment, music, news and public affairs programming for the African-American audience. The BET Network reaches more than 80 million households according to Nielsen media research, and can be seen in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.
BET is a dominant consumer brand in the urban marketplace with a diverse group of branded businesses: BET.com, the Number 1 Internet portal for African Americans; BET Digital Networks - BET Jazz, BET Gospel and BET Hip Hop, attractive alternatives for cutting-edge entertainment tastes; BET Event Productions, specializing in a full range of event production services, including event management, venue selection, talent recruitment, sound, lighting and stage production; and BET Books, the nation's leading publisher of African-American themed romance novels under the Arabesque imprint which also publishes compelling fiction under the Sepia imprint and inspirational fiction and nonfiction under the New Spirit imprint.
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