Debra Lee had a front row seat to the explosive growth of cable television during her 32 years at BET Networks.
After years in the trenches, making her mark as a leader and as one of only a few African-American female CEOs in media, Lee has had time to reflect on the changing content marketplace since her retirement after 13 years as BET Networks chairman-CEO in 2018.
In recent months, Lee has joined the board of AT&T and become CEO of Leading Women Defined, an invitation-only conference series. In the latest episode of Variety‘s “Strictly Business” podcast, Lee speaks candidly about a range of industry issues, from the TV ratings measurement challenge to how cable missed the threat posed by streaming to the importance of grooming and retaining executives from diverse backgrounds.
With the benefit of hindsight, Lee sees that the cable industry didn’t recognize the threat posed by Netflix and its streaming ilk until it was too late. They saw it as “found money,” just as the broadcast networks didn’t appreciate how much the growth of cable would change the business.
“Never underestimate new technology,” Lee says. “I think the broadcast networks did underestimate cable. They just didn’t see it as a real competitor.”
Now that she’s out of the day-to-day grind, Lee says it’s easy to understand the appeal of binge-watching and time-shifting allowed by on-demand streaming platforms. She also enjoys watching programs on BET’s competition more than she ever did during her C-suite days.
“I can enjoy it now as opposed to saying ‘Oh, I wish ‘Power’ was on BET. Why is it on Starz,’ ” she says.
Lee declined to comment on any specifics about AT&T and the public criticism the company faced earlier this week from activist shareholder Elliott Management. She said that AT&T’s takeover of WarnerMedia was the reason she agreed to join the board.
“As I am planning the next phase of my life, I realized I wanted to keep my hand in content and this would be a good way to do it,” she says. “Not as an operator, but on a board where my advice could be useful.”
“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. New episodes debut every Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.