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Reaction to Tavis Smiley's Firing: Get Over It!
(Written March 28, 2001)

Last night BET provided me with its most hilarious moments since the early days of Comic View.  Unfortunately, the occasion was not one meant to induce laughter, as the source of my amusement was Bob Johnson's emergency appearance on BET Tonight to discuss the firing of Tavis Smiley.

For those of you sheltered from either BET or the Tom Joyner Show, Smiley has emerged as one of the most popular pundits in black America.  Plucked from relative obscurity in Los Angeles to host BET Tonight five years ago, Smiley has used the show as a platform for discussing everything from police brutality and reparations to the latest celebrity gossip.  He also has been very shrewd in taking advantage of his position as the network's highest profile personality, as Tonight served as a springboard for promoting his books, speaking engagements and appearances on the aforementioned Joyner show, a very popular radio program aimed at African-Americans.   He most recently garnered attention for organizing a summit on the state of black America.

During the week of March 19, word came out that BET was not going to renew Smiley's contract due to a disagreement over Smiley's sale of an interview to rival channel ABC.  In response, Smiley teamed up with Joyner to pressure BET to retain his services.  Finally, on March 23, a hastily-written press release announced that Smiley had been removed from the show, effective immediately.

Understandably, there was a storm of criticism regarding Smiley's dismissal.  As one of the few intelligent shows in BET's swarm of lowest-common-denominator programming, millions saw Tonight as the only reason to watch the channel. Additionally, the move was seen as a statement from BET's new owners, Viacom, that they would not tolerate Smiley's brand of media activism.  Naysayers said this was proof that BET's ability to serve the black community had been compromised.

To counter these claims, Johnson made an unprecedented appearance on the March 26 edition of BET Tonight.  However, his performance did little to change public perception of the story.  For an hour, viewers were subjected to Johnson's assertion that "this was a business decision" in response to every question that was asked, regardless of context.  The most critical exchanges were mysteriously buried until the last ten minutes of the show, by which time many people had already tuned out.  Substitute host Cheryl Martin was put in a defenseless position, since asking truly probing questions likely would have jeopardized her chance at hosting the program on a permanent basis.

For my money, the most perceptive moment came when Johnson claimed that BET was never a 100 percent black-owned company and people's belief that the channel had some responsibility to empower black people at the expense of profit was a misguided notion.  With that one statement, the scam that BET has perpetrated against black people for two decades was exposed for all to see.

Since its inception, BET has used its status as a "black" company to gain an audience (remember those pleas for people to "call your cable operator and demand BET"?) and deflect criticism of its programming strategy.   Johnson justified the incessant showing of infomercials and failed sitcoms like Thea by pointing to BET's lack of capital to invest in original shows. 

That excuse lost its potency in the wake of its sale to Viacom.   Anytime someone gives you a billion dollars for a company, you're making money.  

In reality, BET must be one of the most profitable cash cows in the media landscape, due to those cheap programming costs and the low wages paid to its employees, many of whom accepted salaries below market value for the benefit of working for a "black" company, only to be laid off after Viacom's purchase.  And it is in that context that you must view the sale of BET.  The acquisition of BET alongside TNN, MTV, CBS and UPN fits neatly into Viacom's niche marketing plans, and the conglomerate can be expected to cross-promote itself across its band of networks.   Already, BET has taken on more than a few characteristics of MTV, and Johnson admits his dream is to emulate their success.

Truth be told, Johnson is the latest in a long line of black entrepreneurs who uses his race to secure a support base, only to sell out to white interests as soon as the price is right. Johnson's feeble claims that his presence on the Viacom board of directors and high salary signal that "they pay me too much to be a front man" is a weak attempt at denying the obvious.  Every employee knows that you must yield to the whims of your employer, and Johnson is now reporting to Sumner Redstone.  The only reason Johnson is there is to provide a public face until his five year contract is up and his replacement is eased into power.

But by the time that happens, Smiley likely will have put this entire incident behind him.  There is a very small chance that he will fail to find a venue for his unique fusion of entertainment, journalism, and activism.  The challenge is for blacks to do the same.  For as the previous week demonstrates, continuing to hold out hope that BET will live up to its potential as an agent of change in the black community is a waste of energy that would be better served supporting independent black media that isn't subject to a media empire's profit forecast.

Copyright 2001 Anthony Lamar Rucker.  All rights reserved.


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