Debra Lee & Will Packer On Competition, Programming & ‘Being Mary Jane’
When two iconic figures in the television and film industries come together to collaborate on a project, the expectation level for the network is raised even higher to produce a successful show. That’s exactly what happened with TV series Being Mary Jane, which became an instant hit on BET and included a character representative of a strong black woman as a fierce leader.
Black television extraordinaire and a pioneer in the industry, Debra Lee has been at the forefront of the industry and has garnered success through her specialized programming for black viewers, establishing BET as the first network to cater to an African-American audience.
Will Packer, who has become a household name for producing successful movies and shows, jumped on board when he was offered the opportunity to executive produce the show. In a recent interview, filled with a lot of laughter, the two moguls talked about their competitors, BET programming, new shows and how the network shifted to TV and drama shows. Check out a few excerpts.
On what prompted BET to turn to scripted TV and Drama:
Debra Lee: Mainly because our audience wanted it, they demanded it. When I took over 12 years ago, we were primarily a music video network. But when I took over I said we are going to do original programming. And I knew it was a multi-platform world, and that we wanted to do original programming. Our audience was demanding it, they never understood why there should be a difference between BET and ABC. It took a while to get there.
On the success of the revival of The Game:
Will Packer: It was a big risk. This was a show that had been cancelled.
Lee: This was a show that another network said ‘no thank you.’ The CW, that’s where it was, said it was averaging 1 million and five viewers. That wasn’t enough for us, they just cancelled it. It had been off the air for two years. People were begging us to bring it back. It was a serious proposition. We had to convince CBS to bring the show back, they produced the show. It took us 2 years to get on. The night we put it on we got 7.7 million viewers. I thought I had won the super bowl. Tyler Perry sent me flowers and said congratulations.
On the creation of the show Being Mary Jane:
Lee: The Game proved that we could do it. Mara tells this story that she had this character in her mind for years, that she was dreaming of, writing about, and when she brought me the project, Larethra Jones, was running programming at BET. We were in a conference room, it was me Larethra, Mara and Celine. And Mara was just so passionate about this character, Mary Jane. She wanted Gabrielle for it. And it just felt so real. She could have been any of our friends. It was nice to see a young, attractive successful black woman making it on her own. It was just the full picture.
Packer: You didn’t have African American women leading their own shows successfully. It was a risk, just like with The Game. BET has the amazing privilege to create content for black audiences and the incredible burden, because black people own it. You’re not harder on anyway else like you are with your family. The reason I am apart of it, simply because Gab Union. I’ve done three or four movies with Gab, we know each other well. G hit me and said lets work together on this show. We sat and did a B&J marathon, me and Gab and her manager.
On competition in the television industry, mentors and idols:
Packer: When you’re coming up in this industry, there are certain people who are at the level you aspire to attain. What’s interesting is that people will help you to a point and that when you become competitive, it’s easier to help someone who you don’t perceive as a threat. As my star started to rise, some of those call-backs didn’t happen as quickly. In my position, I try to not make a decision based upon is that person a competitor or if that person is going to take work from me.
Lee: We were the only black network for a very longtime, now I have lots of competitors. I am not going to hand over my audience to you on a silver platter [competitors]. It’s a competitive business. We are all in it to win. When Puffy came up to me at a party, and said ‘I just won the license with Comcast to start a network’, he said, ‘I want you to be my mentor’. And I said, ‘good luck’. He said ‘you don’t look happy.’ I am not gonna hug you and give you my secret. And if I do help you, I am gonna lose my job.
On Irv Gotti newest project Tales:
Lee: Music works so well for us, and drama is working well. I just like the idea of telling these stories, they are mini movies, and we sing along to these songs, sometimes we don’t think about the lyrics. It was just fun bringing these stories to life, and having different directors. It will be a different story every week.