By Artelia C. Covington
NNPA National Correspondent
Black Entertainment Television is canceling most of its popular public affairs programs, including BET Tonight with Ed Gordon, Lead Story and Teen Summit.
BET officials told the NNPA News Service that both Lead Story, the panel of journalists that appears each Sunday, and BET Tonight with Ed Gordon will be off the air by the end of the year.
Because of the backlog of programs already taped, Teen Summit will remain on the air until early 2003.
The only remaining public affairs program on the network is the nightly news program hosted by Jacque Reid, a former CNN anchor. BET insiders say the news program was spared because it has a production contract in place with CBS News, whose parent company also is Viacom.
This was obviously not Bob Johnsons decision because these were his favorite programs, says one longtime BET executive. Another one added, It was time to pay the piper and Bobs no longer the piper.
Johnson, the founder and chief executive officer of the company, sold BET to Viacom on Jan. 23, 2001, for $3 billion$2.5 billion in stock and $500 million in assumed debt. He owned 63 percent of BET, the company he started in 1979.
Sources at Viacom say BET had not been reaching its revenue goals and the shows were canceled to save money. Estimates are that ''Lead Story'' and ''Teen Summit'' cost $500,000 to $750,000 annually to produce, which is extremely cheap by network standards. Both programs usually came in under budget, according to sources at the network.
''BET Tonight with Ed Gordon'' was believed to cost about $1 million a year to air. BET overspent on music programs and taking the three public affairs programs off the air will not be enough to make up for the revenue gap. Additional cuts in staff and programming are expected next year.
Viacom already owned CBS, MTV, VH-1 and UPN. Purchasing BET, the first and largest Black-oriented cable network, gave the company entry into the important African-American community.
Johnson, who became the second-largest owner of Viacom with the sale but gained no board presence, signed a five-year contract to remain as chairman and CEO of the BET unit. BETs chief operating officer, Debra L. Lee, also agreed to serve in her same capacity for five years.
At the time of the sale, Lee said: The acquisition will have no impact on the voice of BET. BET will continue to be run by Bob Johnson and myself in the way we have always run it for the past 20 years. So we will continue to have an independent Black voice.
Obviously, thats not the case.
An African-American company gains a considerable amount of capital when it sells out to a powerful conglomerate, says George E. Curry, editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and a panelist on Lead Story for more than seven years. But it also loses something important. Regardless of how BET tries to spin it, the loss of these important programs represents a major setback for the Black community.
In a two-page news release issued late Wednesday afternoon, the company portrayed the removal of the popular TV news shows as a needed restructuring to make the way for more program acquisitions. The news release did not even identify the dropped programs by name.
Like any network preparing for an influx of new programming, a few BET shows already in our lineup will eventually be cancelled, says Lee who also is BET president. There will be more specific announcements about the extent of our lineup changes over the next several months.
BET also announced that effective immediately, 40 employees12 percent of its 350-person workforcewill be dismissed. Those losing jobs work in New York, Los Angeles and the Washington, D.C., corporate office. Some of the employees were given a few minutes to gather their belongings on Wednesday and were escorted off the company property by security guards.
Its always difficult to lose people as part of a business process, but these changes are our effort to support our new programming direction at BET, Lee says.
There were many critics of BET even with its old programming direction.
Still, the airing of the public affairs programs such as Lead Story provided it with a defense against being a Black version of MTV. Even with its videos, the old BET provided more Black-oriented public affairs programs than all of the other cable networks combined.
When the network was still owned primarily by Johnson, BET was roundly criticized for its abundance of sexually explicit videos, its decision to discontinue the Friday news roundup program once hosted by Ed Gordon and getting rid of Bev Smith, a popular talk show host.
Once the majority owner of Emerge: Black Americas Newsmagazine, Johnson allowed the magazine to fold in 2000, along with BET WeekEnd, another well-respected magazine.
Then came a very public and bitter split with Tavis Smiley when Johnson decided last year not to renew Smileys contract. Smiley had been a popular host of BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley for five years. Johnson made a rare appearance on-air to defend his decision, saying they had a somewhat difficult relationship.
Although it was not generally known at the time, the BET Tonight format had been created for Ed Gordon, the former host of Lead Story. However, after Gordons exclusive interview with O.J. Simpson in 1995, he was hired away by MSNBC-TV and the new program went to Smiley.
After three years as an anchor and correspondent at MSNBC, Gordon returned to BET to again host the show. He anchored BET Tonight with Ed Gordon from New York.
In the meantime, Smiley, a staple on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, landed his own program on National Public Radio and serves as a special correspondent on other network programs.
It is not clear what role, if any, that Gordon will continue to have at BET. Gordon has been the public face of BET since its inception and top executives are discussing how best to re-deploy its hottest on-air talent. Everything is being discussed from having him bump Jacque Reid, the host of the nightly news program, to finding a role for him at CBS News. Gordon also will have other options outside of BET, including the possibility of syndicating his own celebrity interview program.
Bob Johnson has often said that Lead Story, originally telecast in September 1991, was his favorite program on the network.
However, the journalists roundtable had begun to lose some of its edge, some suspect deliberately. In January, Cheryl Martin voluntarily resigned. For some inexplicable reason, Amy Holmes was hand-picked by Johnson to be the regular guest host, even after it became clear to viewers that she did not have the depth or polish of Martin.
Another substitute host was Cassandra Clayton, an accomplished former NBC network correspondent. Although Clayton was the clear choice of the journalists that appeared on the program, she was never offered the job as permanent host. BET had already decided to award the job later this year to another substitute host, Beverly Kirk.
When it became clear that BET would not replace Cheryl Martin with a journalist of equal talent, DeWayne Wickham, a columnist for USA Today and the longest-serving panelist on program, quietly resigned. Although he was unwilling to criticize the show publicly, Wickham let it be known to friends that he was dissatisfied with the direction in which Lead Story was headed.
When Martin quit as host, BET executives decided to rotate the journalists rather than retain the regulars: Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, former Emerge editor George E. Curry and conservative columnist Armstrong Williams.
While the show became a vehicle for more journalists, it lost much of its fire, especially the acerbic exchanges between Curry and Williams. It did not help matters that its time slot was changed to 11 a.m. Sundays, when many would-be viewers attend church.
Teen Summit also experienced a change of character when its operations were shifted from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. The brainchild of Johnsons ex-wife, Sheila, the 13-year-old program had won numerous awards for its excellence, including seven NAACP Image awards.
What this means is that BET will have virtually no programming, says one former BET official. We were already down to skin and bones and now we dont have that.
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