Insider Apology? Michael Eisner Phones Don Hewitt With Regrets

The week after the Walt Disney Company’s Touchstone Pictures released The Insider , Disney chief executive Michael Eisner called 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt to discuss the film that has embroiled both men’s organizations for the past few months, according to sources at CBS.

The discussion was brief, and neither man will talk about it. But sources at CBS said Mr. Eisner expressed regret over the whole situation.

“He wasn’t apologizing to Don, he was venting,” said a source familiar with the discussion. “It was him saying, ‘Jesus, it’s been a pain in the ass for me, I’m sorry we ever made the fucking thing.’ It was his frustration at the lack of money it appears to be making and all the shit they went through and it just wasn’t worth it, you know?”

With The Insider , Mr. Eisner and ABC have had to endure the threat of a libel lawsuit from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, the hurt feelings at 60 Minutes over what people there believe are unfair embellishments in the film, all the press that has surrounded the release. And for what? In the end, the film grossed $7 million its opening weekend. (By comparison, Pokémon: The First Movie , pulled in an estimated $34 million its opening weekend.)

Of course, this is a CBS account of the conversation–an account that Mr. Hewitt is apparently spreading around his office to bolster the troops. But it underscores what is a sort of feeling of vindication over on 57th Street. The Insider , directed by Michael Mann and starring Al Pacino, may have won four stars from the critics, but so far fewer people have seen it than watch a typical 60 Minutes episode.

“The feeling is that the people have spoken, and they’re not interested, and now everyone should just walk away from it,” said one CBS source.

That’s debatable. Even the people at A.C. Nielsen Entertainment Data Inc., who handicap these things, say there’s plenty of time for the film to pick up steam–after all, there’s nothing like an Oscar nomination to boost ticket sales, and The Insider is expected to land at least a couple of those.

Still, for Mr. Eisner, it’s been a lot of agita for very little payoff so far. Brown & Williamson, the nation’s third-largest tobacco company, which sits at the center of the story, is weighing whether to bring a lawsuit. It is currently polling audiences when they leave the theaters to see how badly its corporate image has been sullied. The company takes issue with two implications in the film: that Brown & Williamson threatened the life of the man who blew the whistle on their knowledge of nicotine addiction, Jeffrey Wigand (the F.B.I. has suggested that he sent the threats, in the form of an e-mail message and a bullet in his mailbox, to himself); and that the company somehow influenced the F.B.I. to cover up evidence of the threats.

“Threatening someone is a criminal offense and that is libel per se,” said Brown & Williamson spokesman Mark Smith. “And they’re saying that we somehow exerted control over the F.B.I., which is laughable, and that is interference with the justice process, and that is criminal and it is also libel per se.”

Further complicating matters for Mr. Eisner, the company took out a full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal on Friday, Nov. 12, that seemed specifically tailored to make life difficult for him. The ad page was filled with a letter to Disney shareholders from Brown & Williamson chief executive Nick Brookes. After detailing the company’s objections, it concluded: “By knowingly making false accusations against our company and our employees, Disney has acted unfairly and maliciously with a wholesale disregard for the truth. As shareholders of Disney, you are entitled to an explanation from your company as to why they should go to this extreme to sell more tickets.”

So it seems that Mr. Eisner is learning for himself why Mr. Hewitt and his 60 Minutes team handled the story so gingerly in the first place.

It’s not what Mr. Eisner needs right now: The man is under siege. His company’s fourth-quarter net income is down 71 percent from the year before, and the letter came just days before Mr. Eisner was to meet with his already-unhappy shareholders–who can’t be thrilled with the film’s lousy box-office take.

Then there were Mr. Hewitt and Mike Wallace, decrying the film for making them look like a couple of ninnies. Both men have now seen it: According to the New York Post ‘s Page Six, Mr. Hewitt caught it at the East Hampton Cinema on Long Island on its opening night; Mr. Wallace caught a Sunday afternoon showing at an Upper West Side theater and told the Daily News : “The film is getting what it deserves–a decent burial.”

According to Lowell Bergman, the former 60 Minutes producer who is the hero of the film, Mr. Eisner had seen a rough cut of the movie in the spring and seemed O.K. with it. When the film was given the go-ahead by Walt Disney Studios chairman Joseph Roth, Mr. Eisner reportedly only required that it be accurate.

As far as the 60 Minutes side of it goes, generally, it was. Yes, Mr. Bergman did convince Jeffrey Wigand, a former Brown & Williamson researcher enjoined by a confidentiality agreement, to go public with company knowledge that tobacco is addictive, contradicting Congressional testimony by Brown & Williamson chief executive Thomas Sandefur. And, yes, Mr. Hewitt and Mr. Wallace did initially hesitate to run the interview under the threat of a big Brown & Williamson lawsuit, which could have scuttled the CBS Corporation’s sale to Westinghouse Electric Company–all of which almost left Mr. Wigand, who saw his life fall apart after agreeing to go public, hanging out there for nothing.

But the film shows Mr. Wallace and Mr. Hewitt giving in all too easily to the corporate lawyers. It’s Mr. Bergman’s heroics that ultimately convince Mr. Wallace to come around and get back behind it. What do you expect when Al Pacino is playing Mr. Bergman and Christopher Plummer is playing Mr. Wallace?

“What’s missing is how hard he fought,” said 60 Minutes II executive producer Jeff Fager, who was a producer at 60 Minutes at the time.

“It’s just all the Mike and Dan spin show,” said Michael Mann, the director of The Insider .

A spokesman for Mr. Eisner had no comment on the phone call. “We don’t discuss Mr. Eisner’s personal business,” he said.

Tonight, on CBS, check out a star-studded hour of that rascally Cosby . [WCBS, 2, 8 P.M.]

Thursday, Nov. 18

As the November sweeps period began in earnest, word started circulating in Hollywood that when Action ends its shooting season around Thanksgiving, it will never be seen or heard from again.

The racy sitcom, pulled for the sweeps period, is doing poorly. But producers of the show say they have assurances that it will relaunch on Fox Dec. 2, possibly somewhere other than its Thursday, 9:30 P.M., time slot, with a healthy dose of promotion. Action ‘s failure in the ratings department is a mystery to its creator, Chris Thompson–whose humdrum Ladies Man , for CBS, is a ratings success, even though it has little bite and tired old themes. The biggest shock of it all is that the one show critics considered a possible comedic hit was Action , with all its bleeped-out curse words and sexual innuendo.

“I don’t know how you figure it out,” Mr. Thompson said.

When pressed to come up with something, he said that maybe it has to do with the way the show is structured. Its main character, movie producer Peter Dragon, is an antihero. He treats people horribly, and you just don’t want to see him succeed.

“If there’s anything that has kept the audience away, it’s probably the subject matter,” he said. “At the end of the day, television is a lot about familiarity. They fall in love with people they can relate to. The truth is, I don’t have a shitload of lovable people here.”

Hear, hear. Tonight, in place of the fictional greedy bastards of Action , you can see real, live greedy bastards on Greed . [WNYW, 5, 9 P.M.]

Friday, Nov. 19

Isn’t it about time VH1’s The List got a real host? Like, what does Charles Barkley know about music? And is there anything more painful than watching him banter back and forth with the likes of former child star David Faustino ( Married With Children ) over what the best band of the 90’s was? Executives at VH1 have no plans right now to change from the guest-host format. [VH1, 19, 11 P.M.]

Saturday, Nov. 20

Kevin McDonald, the black-haired comic of Kids in the Hall , showed up along with the rest of the Kids at Luna Lounge on Nov. 15 for a live Web chat about the troupe’s upcoming comedy tour. He was asked if he had left Martin Short’s show–where he was a writer and player–and why. He answered in the affirmative and cited “creative differences.” That was as far as he wanted to go.

But then Dave Foley piped up: “He was creative, and they were different.”

The Kids tour starts in January, if we’re all still here. Today, catch them on Comedy Central. [Comedy Central, 45, 5 P.M.]

Sunday, Nov. 21

It’s still sweeps, so tonight NBC will air Y2K –about a man scrambling to stop a New Year’s Day nuclear meltdown. Kind of like Atomic Train with a Millennium twist. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]

Monday, Nov. 22

Jesse L. Martin is the new detective on NBC’s Law & Order , and in his first episode, he practically upstaged the great Sam Waterston. On Monday, Nov. 8, he was in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis hotel, where Law & Order producer Dick Wolf was being inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame, smoking a cigarette. A few years ago, Mr. Martin was just catching his break as a cast member in Rent . The show was such a big hit, he started getting small television gigs. The biggest break came last year, when he was cast as a love interest for Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal . It looked like he was about to get a full-time role on the Fox hit when Mr. Wolf came calling and hired him for Law & Order . Mr. Martin told NYTV he went with Mr. Wolf because “I wanted to be in New York, that really meant a lot to me.” He said that in Los Angeles, he always got strange looks because he is black. But then he showed up on the Law & Order set, where the acting’s pretty much as good as it can get, and almost lost it. “In my first scene, I was supposed to open a file cabinet, but my hand was shaking so much, I could hardly do it,” he said.

Tonight on Law & Order , a dissed lover is suspected of a killing. [A&E, 16, 11 P.M.]

Tuesday, Nov. 23

60 Minutes ‘ Don Hewitt and company were none too pleased last year when the bosses at CBS decided to launch a new weeknight magazine show called 60 Minutes II . As far as they were concerned, it would only dilute the 60 Minutes name, for it certainly couldn’t be as good as the show they’ve been putting on for the past 31 years. The critics by and large agreed. In its first year, they were right. The ratings were pretty weak. But this television season something funny has happened: 60 Minutes II , watched by an average 9.7 million households, is now drawing the second biggest audience of all the news magazine shows, after 60 Minutes . That has 60 Minutes II executive producer Jeff Fager feeling pretty good.

“I think the concerns of Don originally and then Mike and Morley and everybody else were valid in the sense of ‘Don’t try to do this and compromise it,'” Mr. Fager said. “There was resistance for good reason. We were all resistant, including [CBS president] Les Moonves and [CBS News president] Andrew Heyward. No one wanted to put on a program that would dilute the franchise.”

But even as 60 II pulls ahead of the weeknight pack, Mr. Fager said with so many of these sorts of shows, he knows in the end, only so many will survive. “I think the number of news magazines on the air is not going to be as large in the months to come,” he said. “There are too many, there will be fewer.”

But then what will The Daily Show have to make fun of? Tonight on 60 Minutes II : child labor in India. [WCBS, 2, 9 P.M.]