Big Pimpin’ Bourgeois Style: the Demise of Tavis Smiley’s BET Tonight

I was pulling into the parking lot of my two-year old’s daycare when I first heard the news that the contract of popular talk-show host Tavis Smiley was not being renewed. The announcement came courtesy of Tom Joyner, who is the host of the largest syndicated radio program targeted to African-American audiences. The Tom Joyner Morning Show is part of my everyday ritual as my daughter and I get to listen to some old-school soul and I get off on the humor of J. Anthony Brown and the twice weekly commentaries provided by Tavis Smiley. For sure I was surprised by the announcement, even letting out a loud chuckle at the irony of the move, as I stood in the parking lot. Hell, it was only two years ago that Newsweek said that Smiley was one of the 20 or so people who were changing how we get out news and, of course, he was the winner of the coveted NAACP “I make Negroes look good” Image Award three years running. He had also achieved the distinction of being BET’s highest paid on-air talent. But my surprise turned to reservation as I prepared for the inevitable “rally around the race” pitch that Joyner et al. were going to employ to get Smiley reinstated at the helm of BET Tonight. By the time I returned to the car 10 minutes later Joyner was giving out the e-mail address and phone number to Viacom CEO Mel Karmazin. I had been here before.

Over a five year period Smiley and Joyner have spearheaded several campaigns aimed at “empowering” the black community. Using the visibility that Smiley was afforded on BET and access to an audience of seven million spread out over 100 radios markets, Smiley and Joyner had redefined the “chitlin’ circuit” for the digital era. At their best they inspired listeners to send faxes and e-mail to the heads of congressional and senate committees for a range of things from disaster relief for a North Carolina town that had been damaged by floods to brokering for a Congressional Medal of Honor for Civil Rights era matriarch Rosa Parks. At their worst, they were engaged in mundane bourgeois activism that had little to do with the everyday realities of most black folks, such as forcing Christie’s to scrap plans to auction off antebellum era collectibles. Their celebrated “boycott” of COMPUSA for the failure of the company to significantly advertise with black media (namely The Tom Joyner Program) is possibly the most notable example of their bourgeois activism. At one point during their boycott efforts Joyner and Smiley read a racist fax on-air that was supposedly from the COMPUSA president, only to find out that it was hoax. It was quite clear that as COMPUSA’s president appeared on the Tom Joyner Morning Show to apologize and pledge a commitment to advertise in black media, that he had also acquired a half-hour of free publicity for his company as did Smiley and Joyner for themselves. They became playas, big ballers, shot callers able to leap global conglomerates in a single bound — Look, it’s a bird, it’s a plane… no it’s “Big Pimpin’ Bourgeois Style.”

Quite frankly I was offended that Joyner would ask listeners to hold Viacom accountable in a way that they had never held Bob Johnson accountable when he owned BET. Frankly I was offended that black listeners were asked to fight for a program that had significantly underachieved as a legitimate vehicle of progressive thought and critique. In support of Smiley, there were clearly restraints placed on him at BET. Even a casual listener to The Tom Joyner Morning Show could discern the freedom and passion that Smiley brought to his twice weekly commentaries that were absent in his role at BET. In a world dominated by heady conversations that include a notable absence of black commentators and critics, BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley could give its audiences a regular view of black public intellectuals such as Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, prominent black clergy such as Bishop T.D. “Big Pimpin’ for the ‘Lawd’ and capitalism” Jakes and popular authors like the “high priestess” neo-Afrocentric mystic Ilyant Vanzant. Like Arsenio Hall in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Smiley’s show allowed black folk to see themselves taken seriously, while Smiley himself, with his forays into “big mama” wit and ebonically authentic diction, created a comfort zone for some audiences — an intelligent, savvy, “foghorn leghorn” on the black-owned ghetto-fabulous version of the Firing Line. In a moment when black public intellectuals have to work as hard and even harder at promoting themselves than the actual scholarly work they do, Smiley redefined self-promotion, using both BET and the Tom Joyner Morning Show as vehicles to promote his three books and his numerous speaking gigs and trips to Krispy Kreme. One of the running jokes on the Tom Joyner Morning Show — courtesy of comedian J. Anthony Brown, the real intellectual on the program — was the fact that Smiley’s commentary was often just an opportunity to tell listeners what the next stops were on his book tour. These aspects aside, if The Charlie Rose Show can be identified as the model for heady liberal talk on television, BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley was a legitimate, though significantly flawed black equivalent.

Part of the problems with Smiley’s show was that it was often reduced to cronyism. During one recent appearance by attorney Johnnie Cochran and Cornel West, Smiley introduced the duo as his good friends, effectively undermining his value and authority as a host, since he was unlikely to really challenge them in any significant ways. Its apropos to the numerous “softball” interviews that Ahmad Rashad did with Michael Jordan in which most audiences were not privy to the fact that Rashad was part of Jordan’s inner circle. For the record, Cochran and West were on the show to discuss the acquittal of Sean “Puffy” Combs as BET and MTV (both Viacom networks) became “Puffy Central” for the duration of the trial. In comparison, Smiley once invited Russell Simmons on to the show seemingly just to berate the mogul for calling Smiley a “sell-out Uncle Tom” when the host requested an interview with him hours after the death of Tupac Shakur. The incident spoke volumes about the way Smiley used the show to craft and protect his image, as if his audiences should have been as offended by Simmons’s quip as Smiley was.

Though the aforementioned West and Dyson were prominently featured, and rightfully so, on BET Tonight, Smiley rarely invited black scholars and intellectuals who were not known quantities to his audiences. Thus black scholars and public intellectuals such as Joy James, bell hooks, Tricia Rose, Cathy Cohen, Jill Nelson Michelle Wallace, Barbara Smith, Hazel Carby, (there’s a pattern here, huh?) or male thinkers such as Phillip Brian Harper, Robin D.G. Kelley, Houston Baker, Derrick Bell, Todd Boyd (who recently appeared with Dyson to talk about Marshall Mathers) and others, who are just as engaging and knowledgeable as West and Dyson, were rarely, if ever, given regular forums on the program. In retrospect, it seems as though Smiley would only invite thinkers who were already accepted by his audiences as being smarter than he was. This reading is supported by the fact that Smiley often and dramatically genuflected to the likes of Dyson and West, often admitting that he didn’t quite understand what they were saying. On other occasions, when Smiley was forced to deal with issues of popular culture, particularly hip-hop, he seemed terribly out of touch. Granted, he was often forced to do such shows so that the network could attract younger audiences, but he rarely seemed to come up to speed with the issues germane to those audiences and noticeably tried protect his inadequacies by framing the conversation in very specific terms. On a show which featured Common, Dead Prez, and writer Kevin Powell (check Step into a World: a Global Anthology of the New Black Literature), Smiley spent more than 20 minutes asking ALL of the panelists individually how they defined “conscious” hip-hop, wasting a unique opportunity to have a progressive conversation with some of the more progressive voices in hip-hop, Common’s homophobia notwithstanding. The reality is that it is hard to come up to speed with your guests if you are on one seemingly continuous 50 city book-tour — just ask Puffy when was the last time he was behind the boards.

The day after Joyner first announced that Smiley’s contract was not being renewed by BET, Smiley appeared on Tom Joyner Morning Show during his regularly scheduled commentary and publicly addressed his dismay that his contract was not being renewed and that the word was delivered to his agent via a four sentence fax. Despite protests from his staff, many of whom suggested the Smiley resign immediately because BET didn’t “deserve” him, Smiley also announced that he would stay with the station until his contact actually ended in the fall. While Smiley remained silent, Joyner and company continued their assault on Viacom, suggesting that Smiley’s contract was not renewed in retribution for his political stances. One caller even suggested that Viacom went after Smiley in response to his efforts to get the struggling black hospital drama City of Angels renewed for the 2000-2001 television season, despite the fact that the quality of the show was at best uneven and not widely supported even by African-American audiences. Bob Johnson et al responded very quickly to the old-school wolf tickets being sold by Joyner and Smiley, by publicly affirming that it was an in-house decision made by Johnson himself to pull the plug on Smiley’s term with the network. In a press release issued hours before Smiley’s appearance on Tom Joyner in the Morning the network stated that it was a “creative decision made by BET as part of our regular planning process for the new season debuting in September.” Nearly 48 hours after that statement, BET would issue another statement that Smiley’s contract would be terminated immediately. Bob Johnson himself would suggest that “recent actions by Mr. Smiley left us little recourse but to make this move.”

Some have suggested that Smiley had become too politically hot for the conservative Bob Johnson. Some industry insiders have suggested that Johnson and BET/Viacom moved on Smiley in response Smiley’s selling of an exclusive interview with former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olsen to ABC’s Primetime Live. While both may have come into play in the decision to remove Smiley, Johnson was also likely personally offended by the end-around criticism by Joyner et al, that suggested that it was a decision made over Johnson’s head. Though Johnson sold BET for three billion dollars last October, the company is still run on a day-to-day basis by Johnson and his management team. Johnson has recently been proven to be very sensitive to public criticism, hence his very public disputes with cartoonist Aaron McGruder, who regularly clowns BET and a host of other black folk in his strip The Boondocks. From Johnson’s vantage, the criticism that suggested that he didn’t make the decision may have infuriated him as much or more than the criticisms of the move itself. Johnson admitted during his unprecedented appearance during a special one hour BET Tonight, where viewers were able to call in and e-mail one of the most prominent gatekeepers of black intellectual and entertainment property, that the specific reason for Smiley’s removal was because of the interview with Sara Jane Olsen. Johnson is disingenuous though when he suggests that Viacom did not play a part in his decision making process, particularly because Smiley’s appearance on Primetime Live helped ABC trounce the debut of the heavily promoted urban cop drama Big Apple on the Viacom owned CBS — a show that is likely to attract a significant black urban based audience.

Culling perceptions from radio appearances by Al Sharpton and Cornel West on New York City’s WRKS, the Tom Joyner Morning Show, and various listservs dedicated to African American issues, the general consensus is that Smiley was in fact being punished for his political views. While such a view is an obvious response to Smiley’s firing, Smiley’s body of political work doesn’t suggest that he is pushing for any ideas that are not already part of the status quo of black mainstream political activity. Given the choices offered to the American public this past Presidential election, Smiley’s efforts to increase voter registration and increase voter consciousness did little more than popularize the efforts of traditional black elected leadership, albeit to the flavor of old-school Soul. Given the age range of Tom Joyner’s core audience, hence the relevance on the term “Old-School,” those efforts did little to reach out to the youngest segment of the African-American electorate and instead preached to a choir who had been preached the same sermon consistently over a 20 year period since the first election of Ronald Reagan. Even Smiley’s highly publicized “State of Black America” events, the first held at the eve of the Democratic National Convention last August and the most recent this past February, gives a portrait of how mainstream Smiley’s sensibilities are. Nearly all of the participants in the most recent forum broadcast in two parts on C-SPAN, were the kind of known quantities that made regular appearances on the his show and the numerous other “talking heads” programs on television. While Smiley should be commended for including a wide range political voices including conservative stalwarts such as Armstrong Williams, Stanley Crouch and Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell (he of Bush inauguration fame), scholars Lani Guiner and Mary Frances Berry, and “young” voices like Aaron McGruder and Farai Chideya, there were no major radical voices such as those of Black Radical Congress leaders, scholar Manning Marable and Bill Fletcher, no major leaders from within the black gay and lesbian communities, and no one doing the kind of grassroots organization of welfare recipients. It was the classic coming together of policy makers and policy informers, but no one who is policy affected and it speaks to the general disconnect of bourgeois mainstream black political activity. I say all this to suggest that Smiley has not posited anything in his formidable political body of work that would suggest that he is at all a threat to the political status quo. If anything he has himself become of media commodity, which does not guarantee that his politics travel with him, though no doubt Smiley himself will travel well to another network hosting a syndicated talk show of some type.

The stark reality was that the show’s viewership did not justify Smiley’s salary. BET Tonight reached an average of 212,000 viewers. In comparison, BET News with Ed Gordon (who returned to the Johnson plantation last year after a stint with MSNBC) attracted 253, 000 viewers, which means that over 40,000 houses would change channels or turn off the television when Smiley came on. More telling is the fact that BET Live, an underwhelming “late night” show hosted by former NBA star John Salley has an audience almost double that of BET Tonight at 409,000. For the record the network’s highest rated program is the often vulgar and atrocious Comic View, a show notable for the fact that until recently most of the comics who appeared on the show were not paid any residuals, even though appearances of folks such as Original “Kangs” D.L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer were still regularly shown four or five years after their initial tapings. The fact that the show is supported by more than 500,000 viewers speak volumes about the network’s core audience — folks who watch such low brow entertainment like the Tom Green knock-off Hits from the Street and the supposedly “woman-centered” program Oh Drama, where actress Kim Whitely (of Sparks and Me and My Brother fame) regularly reminds audiences that she is “not getting any.” In this context, Smiley’s forced departure seems a no-brainer.

It is important to note that this is an audience that Johnson himself has aggressively tried to cultivate since 1996, when long-time Video Soul host Donnie Simpson was put out to pasture. Two years later Bev Smith, who’s show Our Voices, also separated from the Johnson plantation. Johnson has shown a distinct pattern of pulling public affairs and “adult” programming when they do not reach the kinds of audiences and more importantly, generate the kind of ad revenue that BET desires. In this regard, Smiley’s departure was likely plotted last fall, when the show was reduced to a half-hour show instead of the one-hour call-in show that it debuted as in 1996 as BET Talk. In its current format, the show has quite frankly been bad. What troubles me is that suddenly BET’s moves are being aggressively criticized because it is now owned by Viacom. Black audiences have been disappointed, dismayed and at times disgusted at BET’s primary programming for more than five years, which is why Aaron McGruder’s critiques of BET in The Boondocks held such a resonance with many. It was less than a year ago that Johnson with the advice of Vanguarde Media’s Keith Clinkscales ceased publication of George Curry’s Emerge Magazine, arguably the preeminent source of political commentary about Black America. Where was the outcry and public disdain for that decision? Did Tom Joyner et al give out fax numbers and e-mail address of BET and Vanguarde Media in response to the demise of Emerge, or the removal of Donnie Simpson and Bev. Smith or those damn “bling, bling and booty shaker” videos that run all day for that matter? Because BET was then a “black-owned” company, Bob Johnson was protected as audiences and supporters closed ranks around the “premiere” black media outlet. Ultimately, the Viacoms of the world can and will make decisions detrimental to African-American audiences if only because of the general inability or unwillingness for those audiences to hold themselves accountable and there is unfortunately no fax number and e-mail address that can rectify that.