THE RECENT DISCLOSURE of conservative commentator Armstrong Williams’ relationship with the U.S. Dept. of Education — which paid him $240,000 to shill for the No Child Left Behind act — must have left Hollywood seething with envy.Reinforcing its image as a CEO-style presidency, the Bush administration continues to blaze new trails in how to operate with private-sector initiative — in this case, ensuring favorable treatment from a media pundit by placing him on the payroll. And for what amounts to chump change, yet. This strategy can’t be lost on the networks as they endure the twice-annual TV Critics Assn. tour, where the questions are occasionally ill-informed or softballs but, as far as anyone knows, not bought and paid for in advance. Notably, the Public Relations Society of America decried Williams’ actions, citing its code of ethics, which “requires that public relations professionals engage in open, honest communications, and fully disclose sponsors or financial interests involved in any paid communications activities.” Does anybody else here the muffled sound of Oscar campaigners chortling right about now? AT ANY RATE, there have been indications that broadcasters learned a few new tricks from the Education Dept., based on a rare joint press conference involving Viacom co-COO Leslie Moonves and NBC TV group prexy Jeff Zucker. Here is a transcript containing highlights from that event, which suggest that thinly disguised plants appear to have infiltrated the normally hard-bitten press corps: Q: “Les, CBS News had its eye blackened by the controversy over the faulty report on President Bush’s National Guard service. “But enough about that. Aren’t you pleased by how well the ‘CSI’ franchise is doing?” A: “That’s an excellent question. Absolutely.” Q: “Jeff, you were called a wunderkind when you were running ‘The Today Show’ in your 20s, but now NBC has hit some tough times, especially in regard to comedy development. “My question is, are you still a genius?” A: “At the end of the day, yes, I am.” Q: “Les, you canceled ‘The Will’ after one episode, and you steadfastly refuse to say that you’ve given up developing a reality-based version of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ despite criticism of the concept from advocacy groups and members of Congress. “With that in mind, what do you take the most pride in, in terms of your brilliant tenure turning around the network?” A: “That’s a tough one. Obviously, we’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s hard to pick one thing.” Q: “Jeff, it seems as if NBC prodded Jay Leno out the door, albeit not until 2009, to avoid losing Conan O’Brien by designating him as the heir to ‘The Tonight Show.’ “So now that you’re part of Universal, what’s your favorite attraction at Universal Studios?” A: “Look, the press won’t believe me when I say this, but it would have to be Jurassic Park, mostly because I enjoy the big plunge into darkness at the end. It reminds me a lot of network television (laughs). And by the way, the business is much healthier than most of you people — except of course for you, Bill — give it credit for.” Q: “For both of you: The FCC has stepped up fines against broadcasters, including CBS for the Janet Jackson episode. The commission also reversed an earlier decision and concluded that Bono’s use of a certain epithet during last year’s Golden Globes telecast was in fact indecent. “Like, isn’t that stupid and unfair? Who hasn’t seen a breast or heard the word ‘fuck’ before?” Zucker: “I’m pretty sure I heard it around my office the day after ‘Father of the Pride’s’ second episode aired.” (Laughs, applause) Q: “Les, for all CBS’ primetime success, David Letterman still trails Leno and ‘The Early Show,’ despite some gains, remains a distant third. Moreover, you recently married one of that program’s co-anchors, Julie Chen. “So … if you’d stayed an actor, given what a terrific executive you are, do you see yourself as more a Redford type or a Pacino type?” A: “Hey, if I stayed an actor, Ray Romano would still be doing standup in Schenectady right now. (Laughs, applause) But I think anyone who has tried holding out for more money at CBS would say I’m a Gandolfini type, with better hair.”
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