When the fighting was finished this weekend, CNN’s Larry King wound up as the unlikely beneficiary of a booking war between ABC and NBC that got unusually nasty, even for these frequent combatants, in the face of Paris Hilton’s impending release from jail.
ABC pulled out all the stops to get Hilton, deploying Barbara Walters, one of its best-connected correspondents, to leverage her personal relationship with mother Kathy Hilton to seal the deal.
But then NBC, with new management at the top of its entertainment division, came in with a reported near-$1 million offer.
ABC’s “Good Morning America” is in a constant ratings dogfight with NBC’s “Today” in the hyper-competitive morning show wars.
“Today” is having a down spring in the ratings, but “GMA” has been unable to capitalize, and the previous week, NBC’s Matt Lauer had scored the “get” of the spring: an exclusive interview with Princes William and Harry of the British royal family.
All spring the two morning shows have been trading big-time exclusives in order to gain ratings advantage, but the dollar figures and involvement of top execs at both ABC and NBC appear to have raised the ante for future booking competitions.
Walters had already fielded a phone call from the jailed Paris Hilton in which the latter said the experience had made her “much more spiritual,” and Walters had every reason to expect to land the interview.
But that was before money started talking.
For the rights to family photos and videos, ABC News had offered the Hilton family $100,000 — a small sum given the millions paid by photo agencies and magazines for access to the family.
NBC News insists it doesn’t pay for interviews, but it does routinely pay vast expenses to land competitive interviews, and NBC’s entertainment division was in talks to do a deal with the family with a potential $1 million lure.
News of that deal broke in the New York Post and triggered a wave of bad publicity for the Hilton family, which appeared to be attempting to profit from Paris Hilton’s jail sentence for violating her probation after a DUI conviction.
The negative publicity drove the Hiltons back to ABC, but after a night of frenzied phone calls between Paris and Kathy Hilton and Walters, the network decided to wash its hands of the interview in Friday — and told the world it had done so.
Later that day, NBC News pulled itself out of the running as well, deciding that the bad publicity outweighed any competitive advantage that could be achieved.
CBS never pursued Paris Hilton, leaving her with cable as the best option to begin to rehabilitate her image.
Hilton will appear on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to talk about the 23 days (give or take a few hours for court appearances) she spent in a Los Angeles County jail cell. The interview will air Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.
King spokeswoman Bridget Leininger said, “As always with Larry, there are no ground rules and no compensation for this interview whatsoever.”
Hilton, whose case was being managed by crisis management expert Michael Sitrick, claimed to have a change of heart after the family had spent much of the week playing ABC and NBC off one another.
“I am thrilled that Larry King has asked me to appear on his program to discuss my experience in jail, what I have learned, how I have grown and anything else he wants to talk about,” Hilton said through a publicist.