Lee: ‘Game’ on for BET chair-CEO

Women's Impact Report 2011: Debra Lee

It’s not often that a show that fails on one network rejuvenates another. But that was the case with “The Game,” an African-American sitcom that began its life on the CW in 2006. The show, a spinoff of the CW’s “Girlfriends,” averaged 4.35 million viewers in its first year but declined to 1.5 million by its third, causing the network to cancel it.

Fans were so vocal about their disappointment that Debra Lee decided to take a risk and bring the show over to BET Networks, where she acts as chairman and CEO.

“We had acquired off-net episodes of the show from CBS and they were doing well,” Lee says. “It was a question of whether we could make the economics work.”

BET moved production of “The Game” from L.A. to Atlanta, helping a bit, but what really solved any potential economic problems was the show’s premiere: “The Game” re-launched on BET in January to 7.7 million viewers, the best premiere for a sitcom in basic cable history.

After that, the show went on to average 4.31 million viewers for the season. In April, BET gave the show a 22-episode renewal.

“We proved that we could produce a high-quality show for our audience,” says Lee. “That was a huge step forward for us.”

BET is using the success of “The Game” to build its slate of original programs. It launched “Let’s Stay Together” in tandem with “The Game” to a premiere audience of 4.4 million. That show also is renewed for a 22-episode second season.

This fall, BET will premiere “Reed Between the Lines,” starring Malcolm Jamal-Warner (“The Cosby Show”) and Tracee Ellis Ross (“Girlfriends”).

From here, Lee wants to take BET into drama, and in late August the network announced its first made-for-TV movie, “Gun Hill.” BET also will continue with news, music and specials all targeted at the African-American audience.

“I want BET to establish itself as a content creator,” she says, “and give our audience images of themselves that they are not getting anywhere else.”

Title: Chairman/CEO, BET Networks
Role model: Dr. Ruth Simmons of Brown University
Career mantra: “Treat everyone with the same level of respect at every level across all titles.”
Leisure pursuits: “Bike riding, collecting fine glass art, walking my dog”
Philanthropic passions: The arts and education; supporting President Obama’s administration and issues impacting the African-American community

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