NEW YORK—Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo learned the hard way that decisions involving Paris Hilton bring sharp scrutiny.
Her 23-day sentence (and the subsequent controversy over her early release and reimprisonment) unwittingly exposed the overcrowding of L.A. County jails. Now, in the latest example of the odd alchemy worked by the socialite's celebrity, Hilton's attempt to land a lucrative media deal has unintentionally brought discomfiting attention to a practice the networks would rather keep quiet: their willingness to compensate subjects for exclusives.
Hilton's family triggered the scrutiny this week by telling ABC that NBC was willing to pay close to $1 million for an exclusive upon her release, a story NBC promptly disavowed. But outrage built over the prospect that Hilton could profit from her stint in jail for violating terms of her probation for alcohol-related reckless driving charges.
A Hilton spokesman later put out a statement saying she was not being compensated for any interviews.
Hilton would not have been the first to profit from such an arrangement. Television news divisions have long found ways to woo prospective interview subjects without paying them directly, whether through posh hotel suites and Broadway tickets or "licensing" fees for home videos.
"It's the way that the networks have been doing business for years," said Joe Angotti, a former senior vice president at NBC News. "It's always bothered me, and it bothers me more now that I'm out of the business. They feel that it does not cross the line as long as they don't write a check. It's a very fuzzy line, obviously."
One longtime network producer familiar with the booking wars said that that most major broadcast interviews involve some form of indirect compensation such as first or business class plane tickets, limousines, and five-star meals.
"It's all built around the idea of plausible deniability so that extremely reputable journalists can say with a straight face say they didn't pay for the interview," said the producer, who did not want to be quoted by name discussing internal practices. "It's just seen as the cost of doing business. And as the competition has increased: There's been a sense of, 'What more can we do to up the ante?' "
Network officials defended their tactics, insisting that paying to use personal footage or putting interview subjects up in hotels does not amount to checkbook journalism.
"NBC News doesn't pay for interviews, period," said Allison Gollust, a spokeswoman for the news division. "There are situations in any news story where the licensing of material is part of the booking, but I think everyone understands what is reasonable and what's not."
Earlier this week, ABC executives said they had lost their bid for an exclusive with Hilton to Meredith Vieira, co-anchor of NBC's "Today" show. Hilton's camp indicated that NBC had offered the family a better deal: a licensing fee between $750,000 and $1 million for the use of personal videos and photos, besting ABC's offer of $100,000.
But when news of the negotiations leaked out, NBC said it had no commitment from Hilton and would not pay for an interview. However, the network continued to negotiate behind the scenes for a sit-down that did not include any form of payment, according to an NBC source.
At the same time, the jailed socialite and her family — apparently fearful of losing a major network interview altogether — frantically sought to secure a deal with ABC's Barbara Walters.
The lobbying took the form of a flurry of late-night phone calls. Just before midnight Friday on the East coast, Paris' mother, Kathy, a friendly acquaintance of the ABC anchor, called Walters her at home and said that the 26-year-old wanted to do the interview with Walters, no strings attached.
Then around 2 a.m., Walters received a call from Paris Hilton herself.
"She expressed her regret that all kinds of negotiations seemed to have gone outside her control and she only wanted to do this with Barbara," said the ABC executive, who did not want to be identified discussing internal matters.
In the morning, Walters received another message in her office from Hilton's father, Rick, reiterating the family's interest in having her do the story.
Irked by the machinations, Walters and her producer David Sloan decided against it.
Hours later, NBC News — which had told "Dateline" employees in its Burbank office to prepare for a possible interview with Hilton after her expected release Monday — also pulled itself out of contention. Late Friday afternoon, Gollust said that network executives had informed Hilton's camp that NBC was no longer interested. CBS News took the same stance.
The socialite could still find a platform with a cable personality like CNN's Larry King. Christa Robinson, a spokeswoman for the cable news channel, had no comment on whether CNN was trying to book Hilton, but emphasized that the network does not pay for interviews. Rival Fox News said that they were not in formal talks with Hilton, but did not preclude doing a sit-down.
If all fails, there's at least one interviewer who's apparently still interested in Hilton: Ryan Seacrest, who interviewed the heiress from jail Thursday via phone for E! News. No compensation was involved, he said.
"I just realize that the media used me to make fun of and be mean about it," Hilton told Seacrest, saying that she is "frankly sick of it, and I want to use my fame in a good way."
"I think that God makes everything happen for a reason," she added, "and this is my time to figure out what my purpose is in life."