Debra Lee, who reshaped BET Networks by bringing in more original programming and emphasizing family entertainment, is stepping down as chairman and chief executive effective May 28, the company announced Thursday.
No specific reason was given for the departure of Lee, who has been with the company for 32 years, and no successor was named. In December, Scott Mills took over day-to-day operations of BET as president while Lee stayed on as chairman and chief executive.
“As a young corporate attorney I saw my role as the protector of the BET brand and its employees, and today, more than 32 years later, I still see myself as the protector and defender of a brand that I have helped to grow as a top destination for audiences across the globe,” Lee, who was hired in 1986 as the company’s first vice president and general counsel, said in the announcement.
She was promoted to president and chief operating officer in 1996 and was made chairman and CEO in 2005, according to Variety.
“Debra’s vision and creativity has cemented BET Networks as a premiere network for African Americans and lovers of black culture,” said Bob Bakish, president and chief executive of Viacom, BET’s parent company. “As BET continues to move forward, we will always be grateful to Debra for her leadership and commitment to creating top-notch entertainment that both entertains and empowers.”
Bakish has overseen several executive changes at BET since he became Viacom’s chief executive in late 2016, the Los Angeles Times notes.
Zola Mashariki, the head of original programming, was fired in April 2017 while she was on medical leave for breast cancer treatment, Variety reported at the time. She sued the company, alleging gender discrimination, and settled out of court. Stephen Hill also stepped down as president of programming last year.
Lee, who has been the face of BET for three decades, has kept the network No. 1 in the ratings with black viewers for 17 years, according to The Hollywood Reporter. She oversaw the addition of such programs as “The Game,” “Being Mary Jane,” “Real Husbands of Hollywood” and “In Contempt.”
Lee plans to keep working on corporate and nonprofit boards, and to continue her work with the Time’s Up movement and the Recording Academy Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, according to BET’s statement.