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It’s time for Smiley, BET to part ways

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By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


She cheered.

Because she, like many occasional viewers of the cable channel, had long grown weary of Smiley's grandstanding on his nightly public affairs show, BET Tonight.

Media buzz over Smiley's job loss grew last week, with the New York Post reporting he was told via fax that his five-year tenure would end in September.

The Washington Post quoted a BET spokesman distancing the decision from new owners Viacom -- which bought BET's parent company for about $3-billion last year -- noting that BET Tonight will likely continue without Smiley. And he may not have pleased bosses at Viacom or BET recently by peddling an interview with former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson to ABC's Primetime Thursday.

Smiley addressed the issue during an appearance Thursday on the nationally syndicated radio program The Tom Joyner Morning Show, allowing Joyner to mount a telephone, fax and e-mail campaign to save his job (a mass e-mail arrived at my In box Friday with the same goal, offering contact information on Viacom President Mel Karmazin).

BET President Bob Johnson entered the fray over the weekend, saying the move was his decision, offering to speak on Joyner's show and stopping by BET Tonight Monday evening to reject any suggestion Viacom is punishing Smiley for his activism (of course, he also canceled Smiley's contract immediately, taking him off the air before he could become a more visible martyr).

Still, if my friend's response was any indication, Joyner and Smiley might find building support tougher than expected.

I've always thought Smiley was a perfect example of what works and what doesn't at BET. With a minister's flair for speechifying and a sharp eye for issues, he has tackled topics sticky as the n-word and fluffy as Blair Underwood's skullcap on the canceled CBS drama City of Angels.

But, like many preachers, Smiley loves the sound of his own voice -- which sometimes made BET Tonight tough to watch. At times, it also kept him from being incisive, particularly when interviewing people he likes, such as former president Bill Clinton.

I saw that side up close during my own appearance last year on the show, scheduled to discuss City of Angels -- then the only network TV drama featuring a predominantly black cast.

I was flown to the show's then-Washington D.C. studios (they've since moved to Smiley's Los Angeles home base) with little preparation.

As it turned out, Underwood and producer/creator Steven Bochco were appearing by satellite from Los Angeles. It was a rare chance to talk frankly about TV diversity, but Smiley seemed more interesting in complimenting the actor, who (he kept pointing out at length) is a pal.

Geeky newspaper guy that I am, I couldn't get in a word for 15 minutes. Forget about me or TV legend Bochco (NYPD Blue, L.A. Law); call-in questions from viewers centered on dreamy Blair and Tavis (no jealousy here!).

Afterward, I knew we'd missed an opportunity. Instead of straight talk about TV diversity or City of Angels (which was pretty awful then), we mostly traded platitudes and trained the audience to expect little else from us.

Indeed, Smiley's dismissal could be the best thing for BET and Smiley. MSNBC, CNN or -- heaven forbid! -- right-leaning Fox News Channel should scoop up Smiley, pair him with a visionary producer, and make an in-your-face public affairs show that does for people of color what The O'Reilly Report has done for aggressively conservative white guys. BET could use whatever money they save by jettisoning their star player to build a real news department and public affairs platform.

Let's hope BET isn't just trying to save money; after all, the channel laid off 40 to 50 people (even a BET spokeswoman couldn't give a specific number) less than two weeks ago.

When Viacom (owner of CBS, MTV and TNN, among others) bought BET, critics hoped it would bring more resources to a channel that has often been an outlet for music videos and cheap-o stand-up comedy specials. There are rumblings BET may yet expand its news division, which is welcome news.

But right now, Smiley's departure only brings more questions -- with the fate of the country's largest outlet for black-centered TV hanging in the balance.

-- To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at http://www.sptimes.com

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