Tell all, networks: What price celebrity news?

C'mon, 'fess up: The networks regularly pay for hot celeb sit-downs, and it's hypocrisy to say otherwise.

Posted: June 27, 2007

Show us the money.

Instead of network-news divisions continuing their pretense of - wink, wink - not paying for big interviews, they should come out of the closet and tell viewers how much was ponied up.

Paris Hilton is just the latest example.

Reports surfaced last week that NBC Entertainment offered the embattled heiress $1 million to do her first post-prison interview on Today, produced by the news division.

NBC, which aired two episodes of Kathy Hilton's reality show I Want to Be a Hilton in 2005, denied it. NBC insiders, however, say talks were in progress, for a lower figure.

Regardless, it's a safe bet NBC wasn't pitching frequent-flier miles.

When word leaked out, an embarrassed NBC bailed. ABC News, which had "considered" an offer of $100,000, according to an ABC rep, turned down Hilton for free. So did CBS News.

The end result: Hilton will discuss her hellish 22 days in the big house tonight at 9 with CNN's celebrity Velcro, Larry King. No money changed hands, both sides say.

Virtually all news organizations prohibit payments for interviews, beyond personal expenses or exclusive use of video, for example. Entertainment outlets, however, are under no such constraints.

For networks, it's the perfect bait-and-switch: The entertainment division offers a lucrative production deal. The news division stays clean because, technically, it's not involved.

"I think everybody knows what's going on," says Steve Friedman, head of CBS's morning news programming. "It's the fig leaf that news divisions use to maintain some sort of deniability. It's a joke."

So is the line between news and entertainment, which is so blurred it barely exists anymore. Moreover, as Friedman says, "the bigger the story, the blurrier it gets."

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, Paris Hilton is news. Celebrities market their services to the highest bidder. To get in the game, news divisions must bid, and bid high.

So why not stop the Kabuki dance?

In the name of the transparency that all the news divisions say they're trying to achieve, they should acknowledge that some "big gets" come with a price tag.

No matter how they're packaged.

"The news divisions are trying to have it both ways," says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "They're holding onto the facade of a system that's breaking down.

"The only way to do business in this environment is to do business."

Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy, agrees.

These days, Jones says, networks honor the once-inviolate separation between news and entertainment "only in the most technical, contorted, semantic sense. It's the kind of distinction that may have lost its meaning."

NBC, though hardly alone in the practice, is also under the ethical microscope for its scheduled Sunday telecast of the London charity concert marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.

Some say the broadcast, for which NBC paid an estimated $2.5 million rights fee, was part of the deal for Matt Lauer's exclusive interview with Princes William and Harry, which drew big numbers June 18.

Lauer denies there was any quid pro quo. When the concert agreement was signed, the princes hadn't even decided whether they would talk to Lauer, he said in a conference call Monday.

Lucrative deals to gain access to celebrities are nothing new. In 2003, CBS News offered former POW Jessica Lynch possible movie and book projects (through its corporate cousins) in return for exclusivity.

CBS's Friedman, naturally, defends the package. "It gives her the advantage of one-stop shopping, working for one entity. You make it easier for her and it benefits both of you."

Ultimately, a TV movie about the West Virginia teenager ran on NBC Nov. 9, 2003.

ABC News won the sweepstakes for the first sit-down with Terri Irwin, widow of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, in September by outbidding the field - for exclusive rights to footage only, says an ABC spokesman.

For Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, it boils down to simple absolutes.

"Entertainment should never do deals with news. They should never work together. I can't see how paying for access can coexist with the core values of journalism."

They don't, says Deborah Potter, president of NewsLab, an online resource center for TV newsrooms, and a former correspondent at CNN and CBS. And therein lies the hypocrisy.

"If a news division decides it wants to do something so badly it will pay for it," she says, "it should be up front and say so."

What have they got to lose?


Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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