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VOL 3. NO. 14 Friday, March 16 - Thursday, updated on May 9, 2001
Tavis Smiley Among 70 to get the BET/Viacom Axe
By Avonie BROWN

Courtesy Photo

In recent weeks Viacom has flexed its muscle at its newest holding Black Entertainment Television (BET). Between the network's DC and NY offices, and now Los Angeles, some 70 people have gotten the pink slip. Among them is Tavis Smiley, the celebrated talk-show host of "BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley" for the last five years.

In the middle of re-runs of age-old sitcoms and mind-numbing booty shaking videos, Smiley's program was one of the network's most productive, proactive, enlightening and redeemable offerings for viewers looking for intelligent discourse about issues affecting black people. And while cancellations and firings are the reality of the media industry, Smiley's firing is particularly perplexing, as it was the network's must critically acclaimed and popular show. And quite frankly many of us had hoped that with Viacom's vast resources, BET would get an injection of quality programming. Today's announcement brings that all into questioning.

This morning (March 22, 2001,) Smiley made an official statement on his firing on the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show," where he normally provides social and political commentary. He said that while he was on the road a memo was faxed to his agent informing them that Viacom/BET would not be exercising their option to extend his contract when it expires on Sept. 6, 2001. He said the general consensus of his staff and advisors was that he (Smiley) should exercise the option in his contract to resign immediately. Why? "My advisors argued that Viacom and BET no longer deserved to have me on their network," said Smiley.

He and his team were particularly insulted by the fact that after a five-year relationship with the network, he was dismissed with a mere memo. "Viacom has the absolute right to cancel our contractual agreement but after five years of hosting the signature talk show on the network could not one person have picked up the phone to call me personally instead of choosing to fax a four sentence memo to my representative. Five years, four sentences," emphasized Smiley.

Instead of leaving immediately, Smiley said he has decided to work out the remainder of his contract because he is concerned about the two sets of people who have been most loyal to him -- the viewers and his production staff. Many in his staff relocated with him from Washington, DC to Los Angeles and have been instrumental in the show's success.

And as for his viewers, he said they "need a voice on Black Entertainment Television that will speak truth to power about African-American issues everyday." While admitting he is not the only one who can speak to those issues, Smiley said that he does not know to whom BET now expects to assign that role. Because, while Smiley has been fired from the program he said Viacom/BET informed him that "BET Tonight" would continue "in a new direction."

"Quite frankly I have had it with all this greed masking as corporate downsizing that places people in the unemployment line after years of dedicated service. Whatever happened to loyalty?" queried Smiley.

"I have decided not to resign, as some advised me, but to keep representing as best I can for as long as I can or until such time that Viacom/BET pull the plug on this show. I have no intention of letting you down now," he said.

He closed by declaring, "I am unapologetically an advocate."

In response host Tom Joyner (whose show is on the CBS network, also owned by Viacom), assured Smiley that as long as he (Joyner) had a radio show, Smiley will have a national voice. But he was also quick to point out that all black media personnel are in a tenuous position because we must depend on others for our economic survival. This dilemma indeed extends beyond the media industry. "Tavis, if they can get you, they can get any of us," said Joyner. "Mainstream media has long tentacles."

Joyner further went on to declare "war" on media powerhouse. "We've gotta let media giants like Viacom know that we will not accept just anything they toss out to us...Let's call, let's fax, let's email." Listeners were encouraged to let Mel Karmazin, the CEO of Viacom, know that they want Smiley to stay on the air.

Karmazin can be reached by phone: 212-975-6500, fax: 212-975-5361, email: mkarmazin@viacom.com or mail: 51 West 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019.

BET was sold last November by Robert Johnson to Viacom and he made a whopping $2.3 billion in profits. However, in the purchase Viacom assumed the network's $570 million debt.

Click here for more on the Tavis Smiley firing or read the full transcript of his statement on his dismissal visit.

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