“Five years, four sentences,” is how television anchor Tavis Smiley summed up the terse dismissal note he received from Black Entertainment Television (BET) on March 23. The response from viewers and fans was heartfelt and immediate. BET and its new parent company, Viacom, were deluged with calls, and the Rev. Al Sharpton and others helped organize protests in Los Angeles and at BET’s Washington offices. The outcry, which continues, is a testament to the power and reach of Tavis Smiley, and the widespread sense among African-Americans that BET has betrayed us.
If this were a Movie of the Week it would boil down to two characters: the heroic Smiley, Los Angeles preacher’s kid (his mother is the minister, thank you), who moved through the black political machine of former LA Mayor Tom Bradley to become one of America’s most influential commentators; and the villainous BET CEO Robert Johnson, a kind of Vernon Jordan of media, who leveraged his extensive business connections (including a stint as a top lobbyist for the cable industry) into a billion-dollar business. The foundation of his success has been more than 60 million viewers, reaching the vast majority of African-American cable households.
Whereas Smiley used his perch at BET to advance black political and economic concerns, Johnson’s political activity, save his high-profile support of the Million Man March and financial backing of a few black political candidates, has focused on advancing his business interests. In fact, Johnson has taken positions widely thought of as anti-black–such as, most recently, supporting the Bush estate-tax repeal. Now that Johnson has “sold out” to media giant Viacom, the fight has moved beyond an internecine squabble where everyone’s trying to “keep it in the family.” The dirty laundry’s on the line.
Nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner (where Smiley comes on air twice a week) fired the first volley when he urged his 7 million-plus audience to demand Smiley’s return. “We’ve got to let media giants like Viacom know that we will not accept just anything they toss out at us,” he said.
Johnson shot back with an appearance on BET Tonight, this time with BET Lead Story host Cheryl Martin, to counter allegations by Joyner and others that white-owned Viacom was pulling the strings. Johnson’s assertion that he was bought but unbossed might have been convincing if it hadn’t been for his explanation of the dismissal. Johnson said the final break came after Smiley sold ABC an interview with a former Symbionese Liberation Army member involved in the Patty Hearst kidnapping.
But Smiley has always operated as something of a free spirit. His penchant for activism, entrepreneurism and inveterate networking has resulted in a sort of dynasty, where he provides programming for other networks as well as commentary for Joyner’s radio program and other cable shows. For example, a recent eight-hour program called State of the Black Union, featuring leading African-Americans and drawn from a book that Smiley compiled and edited, aired on C-SPAN without any public fuss from the network. That BET would draw the line at an interview with a former SLA member seemed odd, especially given its own downsizing of news programming.
Whether Smiley was fired because Viacom-owned CBS wanted first dibs on the interview, or because of long-simmering tensions between the star and the network, or because of BET’s growing debt, is unknown. What’s clear is that despite Smiley’s overbearing “me first” black capitalist politics and gee-whiz approach to anything to the left of Sharpton, his departure leaves a huge hole in BET’s programming.