Everywhere Tavis Smiley travels around Southern California these days, people stop him with concerned expressions on their faces. He says they wonder about his nightly talk show and blow off some steam about KCET-TV Channel 28, the major Los Angeles PBS outlet for 40 years and Smiley's home studio for the last seven, which is exiting the public-broadcasting network just five weeks from now.
"If the viewer in Southern California, if the viewer in Los Angeles, feels bilked — feels bamboozled, hoodwinked, run amok, led astray, abandoned — if the viewer feels that way, I say to the viewer, 'I feel your pain,' " Smiley said with a grim chuckle during an interview in his office last week. "As I move around the city, the feeling is for me palpable of how disappointed the citizens are about this decision."
After wrangling for months with network officials over dues and other issues, KCET is dropping virtually its entire lineup of PBS shows, including "Sesame Street," "Antiques Roadshow," "Nova" and "Frontline," and will replace them with a patchwork of BBC repeats and news programs and documentaries from Japan, Canada and elsewhere.
But Smiley's half-hour show, which airs at 11 p.m. and which KCET will also lose, occupies a unique spot in that PBS firmament. A favorite stop for Hollywood celebs and politicos alike — recent guests include Jimmy Carter, Sandra Bullock and controversial former diplomat Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson — "Tavis Smiley" is the only nightly PBS program with a black host. The former BET personality brings a passionate, highly personal touch to the task: When his old friend the actor Robert Duvall dropped by last week to promote a movie, Smiley greeted him in the studio before the taping by bowing on one knee, as if before a king. Duvall laughingly waved off the gesture but did not seem to mind.
"Tavis Smiley" is also the only piece of the nightly PBS schedule produced at KCET, with staffers and crew people buzzing through soundstages just steps away from the offices of the station's senior management, who work in what Smiley dubs, with perhaps some irony, "the big building." Smiley seldom speaks with those executives, which seems a large part of his irritation, as he says KCET failed to keep him apprised as it decided to leave the network.
"It was frustrating," Smiley said. "To be here on the lot, produced here, and to be out of the loop is just unconscionable. It's unthinkable, it's untenable, it's unacceptable. To keep PBS out of the loop is a problem, but they're thousands of miles away. I'm right here on the lot.
"I literally got a phone call as KCET was making the statement publicly, as this story was breaking," he added. "I was traveling, so I wasn't even in the city. I didn't even find out about this until hours after it had been announced."
But it turns out the station's decision was merely the breaking point in Smiley's long-tense relations with KCET. He says he's grateful that the station has provided him studio space at what he characterizes as below-market rates. But what long irked the host was the station's failure over the years to help raise any money for his show, which costs about $8 million per year to produce. PBS officials in Washington kick in $1 million annually, but the rest Smiley raises by going hat in hand to corporate sponsors such as Wal-Mart.
"What has rubbed me raw for these seven years is that when we started this relationship with KCET it was supposed to be a partnership," Smiley said. "For seven years, KCET has not raised a single dime for this program. I was never supposed to be producer, host, chief marketer and fundraiser."
Asked whether he pressed KCET over the matter, Smiley replied: "We get a bunch of chatter but no results. 'We're working on it, we're having our own issues trying to raise our own money.' … If I had a dime for every excuse I've heard, I could fund this show just off the money raised on excuses."
KCET President and Chief Executive Al Jerome disputed the notion that Smiley wasn't made aware of the station's talks with PBS. "We kept all of our production partners in the loop, including Tavis and his representatives," Jerome said. He confirmed that the station raised no money for "Tavis Smiley," but added that its fundraising contract was for less than a year and that station officials found it cumbersome to work with Smiley's in-house fundraiser. Jerome also dismissed the idea of tension in the relationship, saying that it was he who pitched PBS on the idea of four Smiley prime-time specials that ran on the network.
At this point, however, the relationship is largely moot. Come January, "Tavis Smiley" will move to KOCE-TV, the Orange County station that will be the primary PBS affiliate in the Los Angeles area. The program will retain its 11 p.m. slot going into its eighth season.
"We are committed to him," PBS President and Chief Executive Paula Kerger said of Smiley. "I'm very proud to have him on PBS. He brings a different perspective."
But Smiley will still find himself closer than he'd like to "the big building." The host is about to close a deal with KCET that will keep him on the Silver Lake lot for at least another year. He explained that, aside from the discount he receives, he also simply didn't have enough time to find a new studio prior to January.
"I can handle being on the lot for another year," he said, adding that he sees what he does not as a job but a calling. Even so, he added: "Sometimes it's hard driving on to a lot where you don't feel respected."