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Authors: Tavis Smiley

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BOOK: Fail Up
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My jaw nearly dropped to the floor after I researched Olson/ Soliah. I immediately set plans in motion to produce the interview independently. The story wasn't exactly BET's bailiwick. It wouldn't even cover the “State of the Black Union,” so I had no illusion it'd be interested in an interview with a white, former member of the SLA—that just wasn't its thing.

However, since Viacom owned BET and CBS, it made perfect sense to go to CBS. The interview was recorded, edited, and ready to air. I didn't go to ABC, NBC, or CNN; I went to my sister network because it had a serious news division with
48 Hours, CBS Evening News, Face the Nation
, and—of course—
60 Minutes

I reached out to CBS executives.

“You know that interview you all are chasing? Well, I already have it.”

They were excited, but their answer surprised me: Dan Rather had been chasing the story, they said, and they were confident that he was going to get it.

Obviously, if Dan's interview aired first, there goes the value of my

They tried stalling me while Dan worked to secure his interview. In the meantime, Chapman Holley called me: “CBS has flown my client and her family out to New York. They've taken the girls shopping and everything,” the attorney explained. “I gave you the exclusive, but Dan's coming hard on this thing, and they are about to close this deal.”

I felt I had done my due diligence after CBS told me “no” for the third time. My contract allowed me to produce and sell anything I wanted, so I called ABC. Diane Sawyer loved the piece. ABC bought it, and it aired on
Primetime Live

The show killed in the ratings, leaving in its wake a brandnew program CBS had been promoting in that time slot for weeks. The next morning, CBS executives reviewed the ratings and realized they had been killed by ABC's
Primetime Live

Well … let's just say … the stuff hit the fan.

What About Bob?

From what I gathered, Viacom executives had a few words with Bob Johnson who, in turn, cursed me out. My rebuttal? I had a valid contract that allowed me to produce independently. It wasn't my fault Viacom didn't review the fine print of my deal when it bought BET.

There was nothing Viacom could really do about it. But Bob decided to exercise his executive privilege and fire “uncontrollable” me. The official response was that my contract, which was due to expire in September—some six months away—was not going to be renewed.

I had been with BET for five years. My show was the most substantive of any on the network. When word leaked about my upcoming dismissal, all hell broke loose. Bob Johnson and BET were flooded with letters. People not only called Tom Joyner's show to vent, they also called Viacom so much that they shut down the company's switchboard. When then Viacom CEO Mel Karmazin came to a meeting in LA, he found himself confronted by a crowd of angry picketers demanding that he keep me on the air. Indeed, my abiding friend, Dr. Cornel West, helped to organize a small protest directly in front of BET's corporate headquarters.

Bob, sensing how ugly the whole episode had become, decided he wasn't going to wait until September. I received a letter stating that my contract was immediately revoked.

Thankfully, there was a clause in my contract stipulating that if I were ever fired without cause—which contractually they didn't have—I had to be bought out.

I won't divulge the amount, but I will say it enabled me to get into commercial real estate investing and to secure the building that houses The Smiley Group, Inc.

Move On!

Tom Freston—the entertainment executive who made MTV and Nickelodeon two of the most powerful cable networks in the history of television—was shocked, embarrassed, and angered when Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone abruptly fired him in 2006. The two had worked together for 19 years.

When I got fired, I had a feeling of loss because Viacom had been a passionate, long-term relationship. But I got my balance back. I guess it's like getting jilted by a girlfriend, a serious girlfriend. You move on
Freston said.

When pushed into the unknown, Freston embraced it. Rejecting numerous offers from his well-connected friends, he wandered the globe, visiting Singapore, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and the eastern Congo, where millions died in genocidal wars. He volunteered to help musician/activist Bono restructure his humanitarian organization, ONE, and his fundraising campaign, Product (RED).

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey campaigned hard to bring Freston onboard as she developed OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network). When Freston signed on as a consultant to OWN, Winfrey defined him as her “business soul mate.” The new venture has rekindled Freston's early passions similar to when he had joined a group of dreamers trying to start the MTV revolution. OWN, he told
magazine in 2009, is about “empowerment and life purpose.” The new network is “as big an idea now as MTV was then,” he said. OWN launched in January 2011 with 13 million people tuning in, according to OWN CEO Christina Norman.

Had Freston not been fired, he might have missed the forward motion signal. When he delivered the undergraduate commencement speech at Emerson College in 2007, he urged the students to reincarnate themselves when necessary and not to worry about setbacks: “You will look back on setbacks and be grateful for the catalyst that came not a moment too soon.”

Being booted from BET was my catalyst. Sometimes, you have to get pushed or you may never leave. If I had not been pushed out, who knows how much longer I would have stayed. I was riding so high at BET, I might have settled for that opportunity and missed the chance to apply myself more fully.

My dismissal was undeniably public: Major networks and news magazines covered the story. I was self-conscious and devastated by all the media coverage. At the time, I didn't realize it had played out in the best possible way. It created a kind of firestorm that I never could have sparked had I just resigned.

I always tell people, “Value is not what you think of yourself, it's what others think of you.” You can't confirm your value until it's tested in the marketplace. If I were a can of Coca-Cola®, I may think my fizz is the best in the soft drink biz, but if I'm placed on the grocery shelf and nobody ever comes along to purchase me, I have no value. My value is determined by someone coming along, taking a swig, and agreeing to take me home—for a price. That's value. I would have never known my true value if BET hadn't placed me on the grocery shelf.

After I was officially let go, I literally had more than 30 offers within 24 hours—everybody called. Prior to being pushed out, I didn't know they even knew my name, let alone were interested in working with me. And so I was knee deep with my lawyer and my staff sorting through all the radio, TV, and print offers.

In short order, I went from BET to NPR (National Public Radio). Talk about cross-over: I went from the blackest media network in the country to the whitest media outlet with my very own show. With this forum, I was able to talk to everybody—Black folks, white folks—everybody.

This can of Coca-Cola had value indeed.

A Lesson Before Flying

More important than the unfolding opportunities, the BET debacle solidified my resolve to never, ever be an “employee” again. Up until that point, I had never really thought about being an entrepreneur. After my termination, I vowed that I would never go back on television unless I owned the production rights. Today, I own everything. I often joke that when I awake in the morning and look in the mirror, it's nice to know that all of my shareholders love me. PBS distributes my show, but I own the rights. The same rule applies to both of my radio shows from PRI (Public Radio International).

With the buyout money BET had to pay me, we purchased a headquarters for my holding company, The Smiley Group, Inc. Fortunately, I no longer have to sweat eviction notices. We started our own book publishing company, speaker's bureau, and a music publishing company, among other enterprises. It doesn't make sense to pay royalties to others for the music used on our shows. Now, we can create the music and pay ourselves.

Entrepreneurism isn't for everybody. Ownership is. Whether you become an entrepreneur or not, take ownership, literally and figuratively. Rethink where you want to go, take control of your future, and experiment with the idea that you have the ability to structure your life and draft your destiny. And remember, content is king. In other words, he or she who controls the content controls the cash.

When director Woody Allen fired actress Annabelle Gurwitch, she turned depression and devastation into forward motion. Realizing she was not alone, she went out and interviewed the famous and not-so-famous—everyone from Tim Allen, Sarah Silverman, and Felicity Huffman to GM workers and her rabbi and her gynecologist. Gurwitch's best-selling book,
Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, & Dismissed
, challenged readers to consider the possibility that being fired may be a disguised blessing.

As a guest on my television show in April 2010, Maria Bartiromo suggested that we use our moments of uncertainty to make ourselves adaptable to burgeoning opportunities:

“Use this time right now where you're uncertain about your next move to make sure that you are positioning yourself as best as possible to where the jobs and the growth are right now and where they will be in the next ten years,” Bartiromo advised. We should also remember Darwin's words, Bartiromo continued: “It's not the fastest person; it's not the smartest person that will eventually win in the end. It's the person that will be adaptable and flexible to change.”

Although Larry King, Tom Freston, Annabelle Gurwitch, and I, for that matter, experienced success after receiving our pink slips, happiness is not determined by money alone. In these times of mass displacement, the goal is to rekindle that American spirit of innovation. Embrace your own adventure. Define your own unique brand of success and sense of ownership.

I love the metaphor, “When you get pushed off a cliff, it reminds us that we have but two choices—flop or fly.”

My fervent hope is that this chapter serves as the wind to lift your wings.



t's hard for me to judge James Willie Jones of Sanford, Florida.

Jones's actions might have been justified. His 13-year-old daughter, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was attending a new school, Greenwood Lakes Middle School, and every day for a month had been terrorized by bullies. Police and media reports say the girl was pushed, poked, spat upon, and smacked upside the head and had her ears twisted. The family's lawyer said the abuse eventually drove Jones's daughter to an emotional breakdown and was reason enough to have her placed on suicide watch.

The last straw for the 42-year-old father came when his daughter told him someone on the school bus threw a liquid-filled condom that landed in her hair while the other kids laughed hysterically. The next morning, he stormed on the bus with his daughter in tow.

“Show me which one. Show me which one!” Jones shouted as he thundered down the aisle. The bus video camera captured Jones's rage: “This is my daughter, and I will kill the (expletive) who fought her!” he bellowed.

Police arrested and charged Jones with two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and disturbing a school function.

In an interview with CNN's
American Morning
, Jones explained that he snapped when he heard about his daughter's abuse on the bus:

“She finally opened up and told me what was going on … and from there, you know, being a dad just loving my daughter … and just loving all my kids, you know … [At] that point, my heart broke when I [saw] her standing there … [she] wasn't going to get on the bus crying. And a dad is a dad. And I was going to be her protector that day.”

BOOK: Fail Up
12.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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