BET would not have survived its turbulent beginning without Michael Jackson, says station CEO Debra Lee. In the 1980s, Black Entertainment Television was a fledgling all-black station struggling to survive and create an identity at the same time that Jackson was cresting towards the pinnacle of his artistry and influence.
BET was able to leverage the unquenchable thirst for the King of Pop’s music videos, particularly the ones off the Thriller album, to create a revenue windfall and help stave off economic collapse.
“We didn’t have very much money and videos were cheap programming. That’s why we had so many video shows [in the beginning], in addition to the talk shows that we had,” Lee said at a Michael Jackson tribute forum during the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual convention in Washington, D.C.
“We were able to take those little pieces of film, put them together and make highly professional, creative shows. We didn’t make the videos, the labels did, but [Jackson’s label] gave them to us for free,” says Lee, who has been with BET for over 25 years. “And it really turned this network into a business model that worked. And Michael led that charge. He was the one who really turned videos into full-fledged entertainment. And he did it better than anyone else.”
Lee says that if MTV and Jackson rode each other to glory, then Jackson also helped BET ride out of financial doom. Lee intimated that had Jackson used MTV exclusively after breaking that network’s color barrier and forgotten about BET, the consequences would have been catastrophic. “That would have been the death knell for us,” Lee says frankly. “But if he came out with a new video … he said MTV and BET get the video at the same time.”
Along with other artists and programming, Jackson enabled BET to find its fiscal footing until it could grow into a viable, independent entertainment entity.
“So Michael allowed us to stay in the game even when MTV opened its doors and started playing black videos,” she said. “So it’s sort of like when white universities started allowing black folks to play ball, all of a sudden the black college couldn’t keep the players anymore. And that would have happened to us if Michael had let that happen, [but] he didn’t,” Lee added to applause.
Find out what else Debra Lee and other notables like Dr. Cornel West and Roland Martin have to say about
Michael Jackson on rollingout.com/video.