NIGHT AT THE OPRAH
It's true that former President Bill Clinton has been talking to NBC about a talk show. But NBC wasn't the first and probably won't be the last network on his list. Nor will it necessarily be the winner. In the past year, Clinton or his associates have met with CNN, CBS, and several syndication groups about a possible Clinton yakker.
"He originally pitched himself as the next Larry King," says a former Clinton staffer. "He envisioned himself hosting a talk show from New York, Los Angeles and Washington, wherever he happened to be."
At that point, the discussions were in the $20 million range for a four-year deal that would put him on the air two or three nights a week. But it became apparent after his initial conversations that the big money was in five-nights-a week servitude. "He couldn't commit to that," says the source
So Clinton backed out of talks. Still, NBC has been aggressively chasing Clinton for months, but not for the network. Its wants to put him on its floundering cable channel, MSNBC, which has been running third, sometimes fourth against competitors Fox (the overall leader), CNN, and CNBC.
"Clinton is not a cable guy. He's a network, prime-time guy," says another former Clinton associate. "If they want to put up $50 million, they aren't going to stick him in a backwater with the likes of Chris Matthews or Bill O'Reilly."
True, Clinton's aspirations do run to higher fare. Not only did he want to be the next Larry King, in the discussions with CBS he pitched himself as another Charlie Rose. "But not the Charlie they already have on '60 Minutes II,'" says the former associate. "The Charlie Rose that's on PBS."
Never mind that CBS had the Charlie Rose of PBS fame long before PBS did, and the show tanked.
Now, Clinton wants to be next Oprah (Why not the next Rosie?). A senior NBC executive in Los Angeles privy to the meeting between executives and Clinton says that the room got very quiet when Clinton explained his vision for a show that would bring the nation together, people of all races, all backgrounds. That he could still be the national healer he saw himself as years before. "It's always impressive hearing him speak," says the executive. "But then his people brought up the numbers. Katie Couric numbers. Fifty million? Too rich for us. And we know what other people were talking to him about numbers wise. It wasn't $50 million."
Clinton has been getting advice on his TV future from longtime Clinton and Democratic National Committee donor Haim Saban, whom Clinton is meeting with while in Los Angeles. Saban, who produces and syndicates mostly TV fare for children, is said by current and former Clinton aides to be a driving force behind the former president's aspirations to regularly appear on TV. "He [Saban] thinks Clinton's a natural, and of course he is, everyone knows that," says the former Clinton staffer. "But President Clinton is used to showing up, getting miked and then just talking. He has no idea what it entails to put together a show. He'd have no time for anything else. This would be his job."
But Clinton doesn't care. In L.A. all parties agreed to keep talking, and Clinton's representative hinted that there might be flexibility on the numbers if a syndication deal could be reached that gave the ex-prez a larger piece of the pie. "If he could be a part owner in syndication, where the real money is, then I think he'd want to listen to lower upfront payments," says the former staffer.
"When the syndication numbers were casually brought up, you could see his eyes get a little brighter," says the NBC exec. "We all know he's in it for the money, and if the money for him is good, and it's good for us longterm, it has the makings of a deal. Stay tuned."
NATIONAL PUBLIC JOKERS
About 30 former National Public Radio staffers in Washington, D.C. would have had a good laugh last Friday night if they caught one of the segments of Bill Moyer's weekly TV show on PBS. Both NPR and PBS are overseen to one degree or another by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides partial funding to both. And in the past several months, even though federal funding for the radio and TV divisions has not been cut, National Public Radio has cut staff in its Washington headquarters, mostly on the creative programming side, particularly in the area of classical music and culture reporting. What's more, NPR no longer offers popular (among certain segments) bluegrass and Celtic programming to public radio stations around the country.
The Moyer report was provided by NPR's blossoming TV division, never mind that Public Broadcasting already has one. But still. The report focused on an "investigation" into ClearChannel Broadcasting, one of the largest radio station networks in the U.S. In many large markets, ClearChannel owns as many as four or five different stations, many of them playing different types of music during their programming day. The NPR criticized ClearChannel for its aggressive business style, for market-testing its musical products, and for creating a radio network often times run by computers, and less and less by on-air talent. All of this, NPR's report said, was bad.
"But that's what NPR itself is doing. It's exactly what it's doing," says a former NPR staffer who lost his job six months ago. "We lost our jobs because some bean counter in Washington or New York ran a focus group and determined that listeners wanted something different."
In fact, NPR operates a lot like its money-making competition, ClearChannel, but without the money-making part. It market tests many of its shows to determine if listeners want them, and it is seeking ways to cut costs by utilizing computers and other high-tech gizmos.
Most interesting, according to this former NPR staffer, is the one show most of the focus groups say they would like to see: a conservative program. "That's the great untold story at NPR. Listeners say they want a conservative or 'alternative' program to balance shows like 'All Things Considered' and that Moyers crap, and NPR never gives it to them. It's the one show they will never produce."