BET head talks about Smiley dismissal

March 28, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The head of Black Entertainment Television, buffeted by criticism, took to his network's airwaves late Monday in a remarkable hour-long program to say he had fired popular talk show host Tavis Smiley because he sold an interview to ABC News.

"There was not enough mutual business respect," said BET founder and CEO Robert L. Johnson, in response to one of many skeptical questioners. "There's no reason why we should force a relationship."

Johnson's appearance was intended to counter the impression that the move was prompted by BET's new corporate parent, Viacom. He also denied he had fired Smiley because of middling ratings for his show, "BET Tonight."

Instead, Johnson said he was compelled to act after seeing Smiley's March 1 exclusive interview on "Primetime Live" with a woman who had been a fugitive for 20 years on charges including conspiracy to murder a police officer. Smiley didn't offer the interview to BET, Johnson said, the last straw in a contentious relationship.

Speaking on Tom Joyner's radio show yesterday morning, Smiley said his contract with BET was not exclusive, and that he had unsuccessfully shopped the interview to its corporate sibling, CBS.

"Black America can ill afford this kind of wretched public display of black-on-black character assassination and personal destruction," Smiley said. "When I do reappear on television, it will be with a media company that I feel shares the ideals that I have advocated and one that respects me and my people."

The public outcry has been stirred in part by Joyner, one of the country's top figures in morning radio and the favorite among African-American listeners. Smiley, a regular on Joyner's show, said he was angered that he was informed by fax of the cable network's decision last week to sever a five-year connection.

"BET has never come close to representing the type of entertainment most African-Americans would like to watch," Joyner said on his Web page. "As viewers, we have been taken advantage of for too long. We must let media giants like Viacom know we will not accept just anything they toss out to us."

Viacom completed its acquisition of BET in January for $3 billion in stock. Its holdings include CBS, UPN, MTV, VH1, Paramount Pictures, Infinity Broadcasting and Nickelodeon.

Johnson said Monday he understood the passion of viewers who believed "that their worst nightmare had come true - that this independent voice had been silenced by a major white company."

But that's not true, he said: Viacom executives believe that appealing to the interests of black audiences makes good business sense. And he said the decision to fire Smiley was made at Washington-based BET, not Viacom. "This is my prerogative," said Johnson.

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