Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'It's My Show and I'll Leave If I Want To'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'It's My Show and I'll Leave If I Want To'

Article excerpt

Ever since last fall when Viacom bought Black Entertainment Television for $3 billion, people in the black community have been concerned that the new white owners would make changes.

Those concerns reached a boiling point last week when popular talk-show host Tavis Smiley was fired. On Monday, in a rare television event, BET's chairman went on the air for an hour to answer questions and defend the decision.

"There is no conspiracy on the part of Viacom to silence Tavis's voice," Robert Johnson told viewers of a special edition of "BET Tonight," the public-affairs show that until last Friday was hosted by Mr. Smiley.

To quiet the outcry -which included thousands of e-mails, faxes, and phone calls to Viacom and BET -Mr. Johnson, the former owner of BET, pointed out that networks and talent often part ways. He was adamant that Viacom does not interfere with the programming of any of its networks, including MTV and CBS. "I made the decision," he said repeatedly.

The broadcast made black television history, says Ken Smikle, head of Target Market News, a Chicago firm that tracks black media and marketing. "This is a modern-day version of how black celebrities went on black radio at the height of the civil rights riots. Bob Johnson is trying to cool the tempers of angry viewers through a personal appeal," he says, adding, "It's pretty unusual for a boss and an employee to do battle over a firing in public this way."

Last week, African-American radio host Tom Joyner encouraged his almost 7 million listeners to contact Viacom, after BET's announcement on Wednesday that it was not going to renew Smiley's contract, set to expire in September. Smiley, an author and activist, is a contributor to the radio show and also named both companies when referring to the decision. BET and Viacom were deluged with complaints, and by Friday, BET decided to end his contract immediately. …

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