Did CBS News Buy Another Story? Jilted ABC Says Yes,They Did

Wednesday, Jan. 14

After The New York Times reported that CBS allegedly paid $1 million to Michael Jackson to sit for an interview with 60 Minutes , the last thing CBS News wanted was to slog back into the “checkbook journalism” swamp. But there they are, this time fighting off ABC News.

After a filmmaker named Angela Shelton agreed to have her unfinished documentary on her own past sex abuse as the subject of an ABC Primetime Thursday , CBS’ 48 Hours then offered a large licensing fee for Ms. Shelton’s footage.

48 Hours won. Was CBS paying for the story? It says no, just the cost of the footage. But ABC News said it had the film, until CBS swooped in with cash.

“We didn’t offer a penny,” said a spokesman at ABC News. “We don’t know what CBS did do or didn’t do. But we were in a good place with the filmmaker, and the producer of the film told us that CBS is coming in with a lot of money. And we said, ‘Sorry, we pass.’”

According to a source at ABC, Ms. Shelton’s advisor, a film producer named Melissa Balin, told producers at Primetime that CBS was offering her a “low six-figure sum”-a lot of money for film footage, but not unheard of. ABC producers asserted that CBS had poached its story.

But Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of 48 Hours , said everything was above board. She confirmed that CBS News paid Ms. Shelton a licensing fee for over 100 hours of video footage, but she said the sum-which she declined to give-was only for the film and not for Ms. Shelton’s story.

“We’re not buying the story,” she said. “We’re buying the material. Her story is her video. There’s full disclosure here. There’s nothing secretive or nefarious. She shot a documentary and we’re licensing the documentary.”

So what were the newsmagazines fighting over? Ms. Shelton, an attractive actress and director in Los Angeles, went around the country interviewing women who shared her own name, to see what she would find out. She hit upon the subject of childhood sexual abuse when she discovered that one Angela Shelton after another had suffered from it, including one Angela Shelton from her own hometown, in North Carolina, who turned out to be a sex-abuse prosecutor. That prompted the filmmaker to confront her own dark history: The footage that captivated both CBS and ABC was of Ms. Shelton, her camera crew in tow, confronting her estranged father outside his home on Father’s Day, sparking a raw, wrenching conversation about his past sexual abuses.

Ms. Zirinsky told NYTV that not only were there other bidders on Ms. Shelton’s footage-ABC and HBO, she said-but that CBS didn’t even pay the highest sum. “The others had bid substantially higher than we did,” she said. “Substantially.”

ABC News said no money was offered to license Ms. Shelton’s film. And while HBO did not return calls by press time to confirm or deny its involvement in any bidding, Ms. Balin said: “We received several offers to license footage from Angela’s film, but CBS was not the highest bidder. They were one of the lowest by far, but they were not the lowest.”

Ms. Zirinsky said Ms. Shelton didn’t go with CBS News because of the money, but because she didn’t feel comfortable with ABC. “She felt the ABC producer was incredibly aggressive and threatening and ‘You have to take Diane Sawyer’s calls,’” said Ms. Zirinsky, recounting her conversation with Ms. Balin. “And it didn’t feel comfortable to her. She felt threatened.”

“Our producers are totally straightforward and exceptionally professional,” said an ABC News spokesman, “and that doesn’t ring true in the least.”

Reached for comment, Ms. Balin told The Observer that ABC was one of the bidders. ” Primetime offered us a few thousand dollars for licensing,” said Ms. Balin, who also declined to say what CBS paid for the licensing fee. “It’s common to license footage. It’s not like CBS paid … for an interview. They only licensed the footage from her film.”

Ms. Balin didn’t confirm whether ABC had acted aggressively, but said that TV newsmagazines seemed “very competitive.”

“With that said,” she added, “we felt that CBS understood the story and was sensitive to the issues at hand. We decided to work with them.”

According to sources at ABC, the network approached Ms. Shelton in November 2003 after seeing her on The Oprah Winfrey Show . That, said Ms. Zirinsky, is where CBS producers first saw her as well. Ms. Shelton agreed to have her footage and story become the hour-long subject of Primetime Thursday , according to ABC, but changed her mind when CBS made its bid. And why not? The money would help her finish filming and editing her documentary.

“For the work she had done and the amount of footage she had done, I felt like I was cheating her a little bit,” said Ms. Zirinsky. She tabulated the value of the license, she said, by factoring in how much an hour of television production costs “and I try to bid on that. What would we spend for an hour?”

A typical hour of television for a newsmagazine can cost about $200,000 or more.

But Ms. Zirinsky also confessed that her version of the bidding was informed entirely by her communications with Ms. Shelton’s advisor, Ms. Balin, with whom her producers cut the deal. Did Ms. Shelton and Ms. Balin play CBS off ABC to inflate the market value of their documentary? And were the two networks prepared to pay for the story, as much as the footage?

Ms. Shelton did not return phone calls. But Ms. Balin said her filmmaker friend “had no contractual agreement with anybody until we had an agreement with CBS. It’s a shame that ABC feels like something was taken from them.”

Clearly, all of this is destined to become fodder for a future episode of Court TV’s I, Detective . Tonight, police investigators unravel a drug ring while investigating a fire. Wait, wasn’t that on Dateline NBC ? [Court TV, 23, 8:30 p.m.]

Thursday, Jan 15

Filmmaker R.J. Cutler had to laugh while watching Governor Howard Dean on MSNBC’s Democratic Presidential debate on Sunday, Jan. 11: In deflecting criticism from the Reverend Al Sharpton, Dr. Dean used the line he learned from political guru and TV talking head James Carville on HBO’s K Street last September-once more!

“Dean quoted himself from K Street and nobody said, ‘Wait a second!’” exclaimed Mr. Cutler, the 42-year-old executive producer and creator of American Candidate , the newest political reality show set to air on Showtime this summer, in which 12 contestants run for President of the United States. “That was a line from a television show! You don’t say that! He pulled out the old Trent Lott line and I’m amazed that nobody busted him. I thought it was a fascinating, surreal moment: Howard Dean actually quoted himself saying what a character said.”

It’s true: Faced once more with allegations that his experience as governor of Vermont hadn’t prepared him for dealing with racial issues, Dr. Dean dragged out the used one-liner he learned from the quasi-fictional “Mr. Carville”: “If the percentage of African-Americans in your state was any indication of what your views on race were,” he said on Sunday, “then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.”

But Mr. Cutler couldn’t have been too surprised by such studied political behavior. After all, Mr. Cutler produced the 1993 documentary The War Room , which followed the back-room machinations of Mr. Carville and doe-eyed captain George Stephanopoulos as they directed Bill Clinton’s campaign for the White House. And since that influential documentary first showed up-the harbinger of K Street , establishing Mr. Carville as the Southern-tinged Dr. Evil of politics-the fusion of politics and show business has only grown.

“You blur the lines long enough and nobody will be able to find them,” said Mr. Cutler. “The news media has been blurring the lines for a decade or longer and it’s hard to identify where they are.”

After Dr. Dean’s repeat performance Sunday-in a debate he’d probably like to retape, considering his reviews-Mr. Cutler said, “I’d almost imagine you’d see James Carville and Paul Begala patting each other on the back. It was a great moment.”

American Candidate has been in the works since August 2002-and was originally slated to appear on FX Channel, but was dropped because of cost fears-and will be a simulation of real Presidential campaigns, with behind-the-scenes debate prep, town-hall meetings, never-ending glad-handing and a heavy rotation of appearances on real-life TV news shows. Like K Street , Mr. Cutler will shoot episodes of American Candidate week to week, Monday through Thursday, and then edit and air it on the weekends. But, he insisted, the two shows are fundamentally different.

“Ours is a simulation,” he said. “It’s simulation contest. That was a fictional show in which some real people played themselves.”

When real-life people show up in American Candidate , he said, they will ” be themselves, they won’t be playing themselves.”

But what’s the difference between a fiction and a simulation?

“Fiction is a narrative,” he said. “It’s a constructed narrative. We’re not constructing a fiction, we’re sending them out into the world.”

Then again, he said, “They’re not saying, ‘Vote for me to be President,’ they’re saying, ‘Vote for me to win this TV show.’”

But since reality shows are as scripted as any fictional show, aren’t “simulated” and “fiction” essentially the same thing, especially considering there will probably be walk-ons by shameless, self-promoting politicians and half-fictional Frankensteins like Mr. Carville?

“To some level, you’re right,” admitted Mr. Cutler.

But here’s the more important question: Would Mr. Cutler allow his candidate-contestants to appear on K Street in a kind of reality show within a reality show?

“If K Street gets renewed, it sounds very interesting,” he said. “But we’ll have to see. The contestants are going to be very busy, so I don’t know if they’ll have the time. We’re hoping they’ll be guests on talk shows and new shows, and what they have to say will have to resonate with viewers.”

Tonight, it’s The Simple Life Reunion (already!), and Leeza Gibbons hosts a town meeting in which residents of Altus, Ark., get to ask Paris and Nicole about their health-care platform. [Fox, 5, 8 p.m.]

Friday, Jan. 16

HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher is back for a second season and yeah, it’s just like his old ABC show, Politically Incorrect . But HBO is booking booking booking, and the guests are allowed to curse on cable. And considering the political atmosphere in this country, Mr. Maher can remember how to enjoy himself, and he does seem to care about the issues he talks about. He’s kind of like Bill Moyers crossed with Bart Simpson. “John Kerry’s problem is that he not only speaks softly, he is a big stick,” he said recently. Yeah … he is a big stick! Har-har-har!

Tonight, Mr. Maher invites General Wesley Clark, Ron Silver and Representative Darrell Issa to duke it out between guffaws. [HBO, 32, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, jan. 17

Last week, Saturday Night Live opened with a parody of another NBC show ( The Apprentice ) and was hosted by the star of NBC’s Friends (Jennifer Aniston). Jimmy Fallon as Jeff Zucker? C’mon! This is getting a little incestuous. These subjects are already parodies of themselves, so what more can SNL bring to the table here? Enough with the send-ups of lame MTV stars and lamer reality shows. Surprise us!

Tonight, Jessica Simpson, the queen of dumb-as-a-post feminism, and her hubby, Nick, guest-host. Of course, we’ll have to suffer through a Newlyweds parody. But we’d rather see Ms. Simpson play George W. Bush. In a Speedo! [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]

Sunday, Jan. 18

Old news of 2004: According to a cast member on Showtime’s new girl-on-girl soap opera, The L Word , if your ring finger is longer than your pointer finger, that means you’re a true-blue girlfriend .

Go ahead, check yourself.

Honestly, we haven’t paid a lot of attention to Showtime since they stopped running Emmanuelle 2 after midnight, but now it seems the 27-year-old pay-cable channel and chronic afterthought to HBO is getting back to its soft-porn roots. While we can’t heap praise on The L Word ‘s acting, dialogue, character development, plot line or accuracy in depicting lesbians, we can definitely praise the kettle-whistling kissing scenes: HEL -lo! When the doe-eyed Midwestern straight girl with the heart-of-gold boyfriend gets seduced by the six-foot Brazilian Amazon-it’s Showtime!

And educational. Before The L Word , “bush confidence” had something to do with Karl Rove. But even if this is shameless lez-zez-faire TV-and seeing Jennifer Beals floss may define premium cable- The L Word probably has legs. Long ones.

For those who plan on checking it out, pay close attention to the therapist who advises Bette and Tina on having a baby-isn’t that Steve Jobs? [Showtime, 48, 10 p.m.]

Monday, Jan. 19

Today, a good chunk of your cable dial transforms into one big Iowa Caucus Channel. There will be no escaping Lester Holt. Of course, you can always flip to Fox’s My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé . It’ll make the Democrats look like dream boats. [Fox, 5, 9 p.m.]

Tuesday, Jan. 20

At 9 p.m., look right behind President Bush during The State of the Union . Isn’t that Dick Cheney? Now watch him drink a glass of water! And W. keeps talking!