There were some raised eyebrows when Debra Lee told her friends she would leave her job at a prestigious Washington law firm to run the legal department of a startup TV programmer called Black Entertainment Television. It was 1986, and few people knew whether the idea of paying for TV channels would have much staying power.

“There wasn’t even cable in D.C. at the time,” Ms. Lee says. “My father wasn’t very happy about it. People around me had apprehensions about it.”

Read More