Robert Wright used a press conference Tuesday to try and put the kibosh on NBC sales rumors, but what TV critics really wanted to talk about was Stupid Pet Tricks.
The NBC prez/chief executive dismissed reports of a network bid by an investor group led by Bill Cosby and former CBS exec Robert Wussler. “I have no idea what Bob Wussler is doing, other than getting some publicity,” he said, and later quipped, “Bill would love to buy NBC. So would I. So would a lot of other people.”
Wright said there were no talks with the parties (the Cosby-Wussler group has said it’s targeting a formal offer/presentation to the fall) and called the story “more of a publicity generator than anything else… There isn’t anything going on here.”
Still, for all the continuing sale rumors — which have become “more of a nuisance” than a blow to morale among employees, according to Wright — the critics, most of them unabashed David Letterman fans, wanted to know why NBC would seek to keep the latenight host from taking regular elements of his NBC show to CBS.
Several questions intimated that NBC would be seen as acting peevish or vindictive in suing to protect elements from “Late Night With David Letterman,” which the network produced through NBC Prods. and thus owns.
Wright argued that the web needs to be vigilant in protecting intellectual property rights. “You have to be consistent in these kind of matters” and take positions to safeguard such material, he said.
That includes elements of “Saturday Night Live.” Chevy Chase has said a planned “Nightly Update” on his show will be patterned after the “Weekend Update” segments he created more than 15 years ago on “SNL.”
“There’s a broader position here,” Wright said. Still, some critics interpreted NBC’s moves as a sore-loser response to Letterman’s exit.
Wright added that NBC would look at other ways to exploit “Late Night” reruns, including a possible sale to cable.
Letterman, while still hosting the show, was irked when the web dealt reruns to the Arts & Entertainment network, reportedly without consulting him. (The package was later withdrawn.)
“Tonight Show” host Jay Leno said he thought features like the Top 10 List and Stupid Pet Tricks belong to Letterman, but joked, “We don’t have much intellectual property at NBC, (so) we need to hang on to all we can get.”
Addressing other issues, Wright said he felt a certain vindication in General Motors’ class-action settlement regarding its trucks — the issue that prompted the whole “Dateline NBC” public relations nightmare and led to the ouster of news chief Michael Gartner.
Wright called the addition of West Coast prez Don Ohlmeyer “a wonderful shot in the arm for us.”
After consulting with affiliates, NBC is proceeding independently in seeking retransmission consent for its stations, presenting various options to cable systems.
Asked if the issue could lead to network affils being dropped from cable systems in the fall, Wright said, “I can’t believe that when the rhetoric subsides, anyone wants to see that happen.” However, he acknowledged that the retrans battle has become “a very, very awkward negotiation.”
Looking ahead, Wright contended that the 500-channel universe will most realistically involve an explosion of pay-movie services supplanting homevideo, with the TV networks’ role as an exhibitor that can “create value for producers” continuing virtually unchanged.
Leno on latenight
With all the publicity surrounding latenight, Leno called the daypart “suddenly the most exciting part of television,” centering around “millionaires arguing.” Still, he voiced his admiration for Letterman, downplayed his old dispute with Arsenio Hall, and said he plans to appear on Garry Shandling’s latenight spoof, “The Larry Sanders Show.”
As for the perceived cause of the Arsenio flap, Leno’s former manager and “Tonight” exec producer Helen Kushnick, Leno said the two haven’t spoken since December.
He added that NBC officials, particularly entertainment prez Warren Littlefield, “put their asses on the line” by backing him when the “Tonight Show” story blew up last January.
Leno reiterated that the franchise remains his responsibility. “‘The Tonight Show’ is my show. If it goes poorly, it’s my fault,” Leno said.