BILL CARTER and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
August 21, 2002
Some associates of Bill Clinton and executives from CBS are involved in negotiations to make the former president the host of a daily afternoon talk show.
The seriousness of the talks is a matter of dispute among the people surrounding Mr. Clinton. West Coast friends of his are advancing the negotiations and believe that a deal can be made. But his advisers on the East Coast said Mr. Clinton was unlikely to commit himself to a daily talk show.
CBS executives consider the talks preliminary and say that a number of hurdles remain, including a significant difference over money. But these executives, as well as NBC executives who have talked with Mr. Clinton, said that he had offered assurances that under the right circumstances he would be the host of a talk show.
One East Coat adviser noted that the former president had a history of sounding agreeable to interesting suggestions, however and that it did not mean he was committing himself.
In May, after a spate of reports that he was considering an offer to star in a talk show, Mr. Clinton said he did not think that would ever happen. His spokesmen dismissed the reports, saying the former president had only had courtesy meetings with television executives.
But since then associates of Mr. Clinton have held talks with NBC and CBS, discussing the possibility that Mr. Clinton would be the host of a syndicated talk show, at a salary of $30 million to $50 million a year, the highest fee ever paid to a first-time talk show host. The NBC talks collapsed in mid-July.
Mr. Clinton's spokesman, James E. Kennedy, referred all questions to Mr. Clinton's Washington lawyer, Robert Barnett, who, he said, would negotiate any contracts for the former president.
Mr. Barnett said : "The president has received an enormous number of offers from broadcast television, cable television, the Internet, print and radio. We have no immediate plans to make any media deals, and when the time comes a proper announcement will be forthcoming."
The talks with CBS started up after the collapse of long negotiations with NBC, where the prospect of a Clinton talk show first emerged at a meeting on May 1. NBC executives and representatives for Mr. Clinton held several meetings through mid-July trying to work out the terms of a deal.
Dennis Swanson, then the head of NBC's flagship station, WNBC, Channel 4 in New York, met one-on-one with Mr. Clinton in late May and became the champion for the show inside NBC. Mr. Swanson quit NBC in July to join CBS as the head of the network's stations, and is now a part of the CBS effort to make a deal with Mr. Clinton.
NBC executives said they did not question whether Mr. Clinton would agree to do a show if the terms were right. "I honestly believed he would do it," one NBC negotiator said. "I never believed his interest was bogus."
The NBC executives said they were repeatedly assured by Mr. Clinton's associates that he was tired of his post-presidential financial reliance on speaking engagements and that he was enthusiastic about pursuing a new career as host of a talk show.
Still, one consistent stumbling block, first for NBC and now for CBS, has been that the Clinton side has not fully made clear what kind of show he would be willing to do — the extent to which such a show would deal with public affairs or feature lighter fare, like celebrity interviews.
The first meeting was held in the Hollywood offices of Mr. Clinton's longtime friend Harry Thomason, a television producer who has been involved in previous media projects with the former president, including his campaign video biography, "The Man From Hope."
One NBC executive said Mr. Thomason was the driving force in the discussion and was especially eager to conclude a deal quickly. "They wanted to make a deal before they had a program," the executive said. "What they were talking about was a talk show but a weird talk show. They wanted a public affairs show, but there might be a band."
Still, the NBC side agreed that Mr. Clinton's media skills might make him an intriguing, perhaps extraordinary talk show host. "You think maybe he could be a force for good," the NBC executive said. "In between playing the sax or singing with Carly Simon or whatever he's going to do, maybe he could do some great things."
Though that meeting ended in disarray — the NBC executive said he felt as if he were in the middle of a sketch for "Saturday Night Live" — NBC stayed interested enough to continue negotiating. The talks became serious enough that NBC's station group held several conference calls to debate the risks and the rewards of signing Mr. Clinton. Stations in the larger cities in the North generally supported the idea, while some stations in the Sun Belt questioned it, saying their more conservative audiences would not respond well to Mr. Clinton.
NBC executives believed that a show starring Mr. Clinton would have the biggest opening week in the history of daytime television.
They also expected that signing him would would bring on criticism, both because the former president might seem to be selling out to become a performer and the visceral enmity toward Mr. Clinton from conservatives.
"NBC was going to take a lot of heat," one NBC executive involved in the negotiations said. "But so what? In the business of television sometimes things are controversial and sometimes that's the best thing that can happen."
Other NBC executives expressed concern that advertisers might be wary of the show because Mr. Clinton had been a polarizing figure. One NBC executive said he doubted that, however, adding, "I think you sell commercials in his first show for record prices."
The question, NBC executives said, was the show's staying power and whether it could ever recoup the money the Clinton side was then demanding : a guarantee of $100 million over two years.
The price was beyond anything any syndicator ever promised a star. "The highest guarantee for any syndicated talk show was about $30 million for a proposed show with Katie Couric," one longtime syndicated television executive said of the co-host of NBC's "Today." "In this case, that wouldn't get you in the room."
But the profits for a hit talk show can be enormous. The genre's leader, Oprah Winfrey, takes in hundreds of millions a year, and she herself makes as much as $125 million a year from her show, which she owns.
The Clinton associates later came back to NBC with an altered financial structure. NBC executives said the new offer included significant backing from a production company that they said was willing to share the costs.
But NBC backed away from the deal anyway.
CBS executives said they were still far apart on the financial terms of the deal and were not completely convinced that Mr. Clinton wanted to go through the rigors of being the host of a daily show.
Joel H. Silbey, a historian at Cornell University, said that although other former presidents had written books, given speeches or, like Jimmy Carter, sought to contribute to public life, none "came back into the realm of popular culture."
But Professor Silbey said the possibility of a talk show reflected Mr. Clinton's unique personality, noting the former president's close ties to Hollywood and his comfort in settings like MTV.