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Playing the Paris lottery

Times Staff Writer

The no-holds-barred competition for television exclusives ratcheted up another level this week as Paris Hilton’s representatives told networks bidding for the first post-jail interview with the heiress that NBC was considering paying as much as $1 million for the scoop.

The massive payment -- purportedly a license fee for the use of personal video and images of the 26-year-old -- succeeded in boxing out NBC’s competition, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. The deal was first reported Thursday by the New York Post.

However, it remains unclear whether the interview, reportedly to be conducted by “Today’s” Meredith Vieira, has been finalized. Allison Gollust, a spokeswoman for NBC News, said the news division has no commitment from Hilton for an interview, adding that “NBC News has not and will not pay for an interview.”

But NBC’s entertainment division has been in discussions with Hilton’s camp, according to network sources, and could compensate Hilton through a development deal, effectively circumventing the news division’s policy prohibiting payments for interviews.

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Elliot Mintz, Hilton’s publicist, said he couldn’t comment on whether Hilton had struck a deal with NBC.

“I simply at this moment in time don’t know,” he said.

The report of the hefty fee -- coming at a time when NBC Universal is undergoing companywide cost-cutting -- spotlights how the television networks regularly skirt their own ban on checkbook journalism. The practice, a badly kept secret in the industry, takes many forms: free hotel rooms and entertainment while interview subjects are in New York, payment for the “licensing” of home videos and photos to illustrate the story, and other incentives, according to industry veterans. If the costs are too egregious, often the project is shifted to a network’s entertainment division, which can pay subjects through production contracts.

CBS News offered Jessica Lynch possible movie and book deals through its sister corporate divisions in an effort to land an exclusive with the former U.S. Army private in 2003. ABC News paid Steve Irwin’s widow hundreds of thousands of dollars to use footage of the late naturalist in a prime-time interview with Barbara Walters last fall. (ABC executives said the license fee was necessary because Irwin’s widow, Terri, owned all the footage of the “Crocodile Hunter,” who died in September.)

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This spring, NBC agreed to pay a reported $2.5 million for the rights to air a tribute concert in July marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. Subsequently, Matt Lauer landed an exclusive with Princes Harry and William, which aired in prime time Monday.

“It seems like there are end-runs all over the place, and they are being done in the name of competition,” said Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast ethics at the Poynter Institute, a media resource and school in Florida. “I don’t know what transpired here, but what I do know is that any compensation that comes through a network -- whether it’s a book deal or movie deal or offering special access -- none of that has any place in news.

“In the end, that is not what builds network credibility. People are not going to tune into any network based on who gets Paris Hilton. It just adds an even more unseemly element to a story that seemed like it couldn’t get more unseemly.”

In the fiercely fought battle for television exclusives, the Hilton interview is a substantial “get,” coming after the socialite’s controversial stint in a Los Angeles County jail for violating terms of her probation on alcohol-related reckless driving charges. Hilton is expected to be released Monday from a Lynwood jail.

Still NBC’s aggressive bid for the interview with Hilton surprised its competitors. Given the ubiquity of the oft-photographed heiress, rival networks had contemplated paying no more than $100,000 for new images of her. (The California law that makes it difficult for criminals to financially profit from their crimes applies only to felons.)

“We were told NBC was in another galaxy,” said one network executive.

The move outflanked ABC’s Walters, a friend of Paris’ mother, Kathy, who had helped her score a phone interview with Hilton from jail earlier this month. Walters was seen as the front-runner to get the first sit-down with Hilton after her release and had been lobbying hard for the interview.

Instead, the heiress apparently agreed to sit down with Vieira, nixing Lauer, who recently told CNN’s Larry King that the ruckus over Hilton was “not the kind of story that gets me out of bed in the morning.”

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“What has she done except, you know, get in her car drunk one time and then go get in the car again with, you know, an expired license?” Lauer asked King last week.

The report of NBC’s payment rankled many news division employees, already demoralized by a round of layoffs and other cost-cutting mandated by a corporate restructuring effort dubbed NBCU 2.0. But others saw the move as a necessary one to bolster “Today,” the division’s biggest moneymaker, which has suffered rating declines this season. The program drew an average of 5.6 million viewers through mid-June, down 6% from last season.

“The ‘Today’ show is in the fight of their lives,” said one high-level editorial employee. “We’ve got to win.”

matea.gold@latimes.com


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