Articles: Tavis Smiley Counters Quotes from Chairman Bob




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Kam Williams

   Tavis Smiley’s popular talk show, BET Tonight, a sophisticated oasis on the relatively raunchy airwaves of Black Entertainment Television (BET), has been cancelled after a five year run. He was fired by Robert Johnson, the richest black man in America. If Bob Johnson gave me just one-percent of his money, I’d burn all of mine.
   What makes the firing of the very popular Mr. Smiley newsworthy is that it comes in the wake of the sale of BET to media conglomerate Viacom, parent company of CBS, Paramount, MTV, VH1, Blockbuster Video and Infinity Broadcasting. Johnson became the country’s first black billionaire when he sold his company last year.
   Since the transfer of ownership, there has been rampant speculation that BET’s progressive programming might get axed in favor of more mainstream fare. Still, BET Chairman Johnson gave his assurances that the network’s shift from black to white ownership would not change the station’s commitment to the African-American perspective.
   But Tavis was dismissed on Friday, March 23rd. When his loyal fans threatened to organize a boycott of BET, Bob Johnson took to the airwaves on Monday the 26th, in Tavis’ old time slot, to defend the decision. But was it really his decision? Tavis retaliated the next morning on Tom Joyner’s nationally-syndicated radio show.
   Who’s right? Listen to them in their own words, deftly spliced together by this electronic moderator, as if they’d had a heated tete-a-tete:
   TS: "To say I was shocked by the news of my immediate termination last Friday evening would be the mother of all understatements."
   BJ: "The relationship with Tavis has been somewhat difficult. He’s done very well based on the platform BET has provided him. We decided to terminate our relationship, but I think he has a bright future and I wish him well."
   TS: "As for me, it is time to move on, to find and create new ways to fulfill my passion and my purpose. To continue to use whatever talent God has blessed me with to help enlighten, encourage and empower black people. Alas, Viacom and Mr. Johnson have spoken and, to be sure, we in black America have heard them loud and clear."
   BJ: "I think it is disingenuous for people to try to create a conspiracy that Viacom forced Travis off the air."
   TS: "The very thought of this type of verbal nihilism sickens me. I will not be a participant in some public spectacle. I’m not Holyfield, Bob Johnson is not Tyson, and Mel Karmazin is no Don King."
BJ: "Mel Karmazin had absolutely nothing to do with the decision. I I make too much money to be a frontman. I have more stock in Viacom than anybody other than Sumner Redstone. This was my decision."
TS: "Black America can ill-afford any kind of wretched public display of black-on-black character assassination."
   BJ: "I get paid to make tough decisions. I made this decision for this reason: Tavis had an opportunity to do an interview with a woman who was a former member of the SLA. He sold it to another network. He should have, based on our five year relationship, made an effort to ask BET if it wanted to air that interview."
   TS: "My representatives, operating in good faith, made BET’s sister network, CBS, also owned by Viacom, aware of my exclusive interview. And for whatever reason, CBS passed and a deal was struck with ABC."
   BJ: "We didn’t know about the interview until we saw it on ABC Prime Time Live."
   TS: "My contract with BET allowed me to appear on and produce for other media outlets, both cable and network. My contract did not require a first look or first right of refusal by BET."
   BJ: "Tavis may have had a very good reason not to let us even know about the interview. But we never got a chance to address the question."
   TS: "The SLA interview was an investigative news piece, costing well into six figures to produce, unprecedented at BET. Not to mention that the interview did not fit my BET Tonight format or any other show format on BET."
   BJ: "We’ve had this type of problem with Tavis before. The relationship with him has been somewhat difficult. There’s been a back and forth dispute over his continuing at BET. Finally, we got to an issue that was the straw that broke the camel’s back."
   TS: "I then find it curious that Mr. Johnson would move to dismiss me for selling one interview in five years to another network, when BET refused to broadcast either one of our historic black think-tank symposiums which so many watched on C-Span."
   BJ: "I believe that this issue has been blown completely out of proportion. There’s no justification for a boycott because I only made a business decision. And a boycott could affect Tavis’ if it makes someone afraid to hire him."
   TS: "The question of what happens to me, pales in comparison to what happens to black America."
   BJ: "The African-American community could be better off with BET Tonight continuing and Tavis having a new show on another network."
   TS: "I’ve been told that following this ordeal, no TV network would be interested in touching an opinionated, progressive black man. I may be labeled as difficult to work with. In fact, Mr. Johnson virtually said so."
   BJ: "Tavis is a very talented individual and I know he will land elsewhere. BET has some very loyal fans who see us as an important, independent voice for the African-American community. People who fear that we’re controlled by Viacom should know that nothing could be further from the truth."
   TS: "All I can say is this. I have no interest in working for anyone, black or white, who blatantly disregards and disrespects black people. When I do re-appear on television, it will be with a media company that shares the ideals that I have advocated and one that respects me and my people. I encourage you to advocate for TV that honors us not whores us."

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