Johnson: I fired Tavis Smiley

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After several days of controversy surrounding the outster of a noted Black commentator, BET abruptly pulled the plug on Tavis Smiley after Friday night’s edition of "BET Tonight."

BET Chairman and CEO Robert L. Johnson is scheduled to appear Monday at 11 p.m. (EST) on BET Tonight to answer viewers’ questions on the controversy.

Smiley and his staff were notified of the decision after the taping of the show on Friday, according to nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, who announced during his Monday morning show that Tavis was out effective immediately as host of the BET show.

The network, recently acquired by media giant Viacom, had announced on Wednesday that Smiley’s contract would not be renewed. That prompted a flurry of phone calls and e-mails to the network.

Smiley said last week that he would continue hosting the show until his contract expired in September, or until BET pulled the plug. That happened on Friday, according to a news release by BET.

In its statement, the network said the show "will use guest hosts until a permanent host is selected for the fall 2001 television season."

"After a five-year relationship with Tavis Smiley, we have terminated the remainder of his contract effective immediately,” Johnson, who founded the network, said in the statement. “There are a number of public and private concerns which led to my decision. Recent actions by Mr. Smiley left us little recourse but to make this move.”

Johnson also accused the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” of fueling misinformation about the issue. He also said he had offered to appear on the show “to no avail.’’ Joyner said Monday that Johnson had not agreed to appear on the show, and Joyner said he had been awaiting a phone call from Johnson.

“As the person responsible for this network and the individual who made this decision, it is important to offer my perspective on this matter, which until now has been ignored, ” Johnson said.

Johnson reiterated that he, not Viacom’s President Mel Karmazin, made the decision to terminate Smiley.

In a blistering response during his Thursday morning commentary on The Tom Joyner Morning Show, Smiley said he would have thought his five years of serving BET would have earned a more dignified notice than a four-sentence faxed letter.

“This entire situation is still a little hazy for me, but I’m clear about one thing,” Smiley said. “I am unapologetically an advocate. And you don’t need a television show to advocate; to be a change agent. Dr. King never had a television show. Malcolm X never had a television show.”

After Smiley’s comments, Joyner launched a nationwide campaign to “keep Tavis on BET,’’ and told the commentator that “as long as I have a show,” Smiley has a voice on the air.

BET’s Wednesday announcement came in a mid-afternoon news release “in response to media reports and public reaction’’ over its decision to drop Smiley as host of the late-night talk show BET Tonight.

The network had been bombarded with phone calls on Wednesday after Joyner announced on his morning show that Smiley would be dropped by BET. Smiley appears Tuesdays and Thursdays on Joyner’s nationally syndicated show.

The BET announcement lit up message boards throughout the Internet, including boards on BlackVoices.com, which serves as the host for Smiley’s Web site, www.tavistalks.com.

“The cancellation of Tavis Smiley’s show clearly leaves a void on network television,’’ BlackVoices.com Founder and CEO Barry Cooper said Wednesday. “By making this move, BET clearly is going against the wishes of its audience. There is clear evidence of this when you look at the passionate discussion in support of Tavis, now taking place on the BlackVoices.com message boards.”

One BV member wrote the following on the Tavis Message Board from BlackVoices.com’s The Black Wall:

“I was deeply saddened to hear that they had canceled BET Tonight. There is always something good that you can find in any situation. Tavis has fulfilled his obligation with BET and it is now time to move on. … Tavis, it is now time for you to press on and pursue what you have always wanted to do.’’

Another member wrote: “Oh … here we go! I was wondering when Viacom was going to "whiten up" BET. … So I guess the program director is going to fill that empty slot with more Booty videos!

But not every member was a Tavis Smiley fan:

“In MY OPINION, Tavis was a damn joke. I’ve never heard such nonsense come out of the mouth of a Black man before in my life. On the other hand, what did you expect to happen to BET’s programming when the Black owner sold out to a White Company?”

Smiley indicated on Thursday that his stint as host would end with the cancellation of his contract on Sept. 6, or whenever BET-Viacom decides to pull the plug. He said that when notified of his dismissal, his advisers had recommended that he resign immediately. But he said that concern over the futures of his production staff would not allow him to do that.

The announcement comes as Smiley had been enjoying perhaps his greatest successes. He is a three-time winner of the NAACP Image award for “Best News, Talk or Information Series.” In February, he hosted a popular State of the Black Union symposium, which drew thousands to Washington, D.C., to hear discussions from some of America’s top Black leadership.

He had recently scored a network exclusive by interviewing a fugitive activist. The interview aired ironically on ABC.

But perhaps the greatest of the latest achievements was Tavis’ crusade against some Republican members of Congress who were trying to move Black colleges and universities from a Select Subcommittee on higher education. The schools would have been moved to a Select Subcommittee that deals mainly with social problems.

But Smiley, with Joyner’s help, launched a blistering phone, fax and letter-writing campaign against the sponsors of the plan. Finally the idea was shelved. Smiley was selected by Time magazine in 1994 as one of America’s 50 most promising young leaders. Newsweek also cited him as one of the 20 people changing how Americans get their news.

Smiley is the author of ON AIR: The Best of Tavis Smiley on the Tom Joyner Morning Show and of HARD LEFT: Straight Talk About the Wrongs of the Right. He appears regularly as a political analyst on CNN and appears on the Tom Joyner Morning Show on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In his commentary on Thursday morning, Smiley said: “For the past five years, I have attempted every night as the host of BET Tonight on Black Entertainment Television to enlighten, encourage, empower and, yes, sometimes to entertain Black folk.

“As Black folk sometimes we laugh just to keep from crying! Moreover, I’ve learned from working with Tom that if we can get people to laugh, we can get them to listen to some of the more serious stuff.”

Smiley, a native of Kokomo, Ind., has interviewed presidents, entertainers, scholars and activists, and he is known for his blistering commentaries, which come in rapid-fire bursts. According to some reports, he makes more than $1 million a year to run his mouth.

Ed Gordon, a former BET news anchor, told a newspaper in 1998 that Smiley, “has the sensibilities of his generation, which makes him more outspoken in all areas.”

In one of his crusades, Smiley got the famous New York auction house, Christie's, to stop its auctioning of three reward posters for runaway slaves. His reasoning was that Christie's had maintained a policy of not selling Holocaust-related memorabilia.

So Smiley raised a stink on the Tom Joyner Morning Show that prompted listeners to call Christie's to complain.

"I get a chance to talk to more African-Americans than anybody else in this country on a daily basis," Smiley told the Palm Beach Post. He noted that 55 million viewers watch BET and roughly 5 million people listened to Joyner's show in nearly 100 markets. "That's what I call reach. I try not to be high-minded or egotistical, but that's an awesome responsibility. People are listening to what you're saying, and they're acting on what you're saying."

Smiley has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Indiana University, and he has called political science his first love. While in college Smiley received an internship with then Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who became an early mentor.

In fact, Bradley supported Smiley in an unsuccessful bid for a Los Angeles city council seat. It has been speculated that Smiley might someday again seek public office.

Smiley said Thursday that his latest challenge “is just another situation for revelation.” “Just since yesterday, your calls, faxes and e-mail have overwhelmed my office. I wish to thank you. “Sorrow looks back, worry looks around, but faith looks up! “And so, I close this morning just as I have every evening on BET Tonight for five seasons: Keep the Faith!”

Smiley's show, which is seen in an average of 215,000 households, has suffered from sagging ratings, network spokesman Michael Lewellen said Thursday. BET is aiming for the advertiser-friendly 18-to-34-year-old audience, and Smiley's viewers tended to be much older, he said.

BET also fired about 50 employees last week, and now has 450 people on its payroll.

Black Entertainment Television was founded by Johnson, who held controlling interest until recently selling the network to Viacom Inc. BET remains the nation’s only 24-hour television network providing programming targeted toward the African-American audience.

The network has come under increasing scrutiny for its content and has been criticized for being too top-heavy with hip-hop oriented music, R-rated movies and comedy.

BET reaches more than 65 million households according to Nielsen media research.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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