There's one person we can thank for ending the big-money network TV bidding war over Paris Hilton's first post-jail interview: You.
You -- as in, the general public -- complained about journalists, especially on cable TV, gorging on Hilton' s trip to jail for her brazen violation of a judge's DUI penalties. You reacted in disgust when you heard rumors NBC's entertainment division was planning to pony up $1-million to get Hilton on the Today Show. And you made it plain that the network news executives' typical justification -- that people complain about such coverage but watch it anyway -- wouldn't wash in this case.
That's the only conclusion left, following news that Hilton has now turned to the interviewer of last resort for celebrities seeking serious softballs: CNN's Larry King. Faced with a wave of public condemnation last week, ABC and NBC backed off pursuit of Hilton's first post-jail talk, leaving an appearance at 9 p.m. Wednesday with CNN's softball King as the venue of last resort.
This is a deal which came together amid reports that the networks grew skittish as word spread about what network news divisions were willing to do to get her first interview after leaving jail Tuesday.
It promised to be serious ratings juice for a slow news summer, as the celebutante America loves to hate drew offers of $100,000 (ABC News) to $1 million (NBC News) from the TV networks (People magazine also offered $300,000, according to the New York Times); another irony that a woman so rich should draw such outsized payment offers.
But the Hilton story has also become a corrosive symbol of all that doesn't work in TV news. As news of NBC's reported $1 million offer for Hilton's interview spread, the whole shoddy practice of using entertainment division money to pay for news interviews came under renewed scrutiny (the other two-step technique -- paying for photos or other items -- also took a hit). News consumers tired of drowning in Hilton excess have begun to criticize the news networks for featuring the stories in the first place.
And the whole mess dropped as ABC announced further layoffs in its news division and NBC struggled to cope with its own downsizing, axing longtime Dateline NBC anchor Stone Phillips and weekend anchor John Seigenthaler.
Like Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson before her, Hilton has turned into the story which slimes everything it touches.
We've seen this happens before, from Fox's aborted plans to hype O.J. Simpson's If I Did It book to the outcry that greeted CBS' efforts to package news coverage in a deal to woo rescued U.S. soldier Jessica Lynch. In both cases, it wasn't corporate ethics or journalism standards or social responsibility which put a stake in such questionable media projects.
It was your intolerance for the hypocrisy. Even as CBS' Public Eye media blog suggested that networks would be better off paying for all high-profile interviews and disclosing the fees (which sounds a little to me like abolishing speed limits because lots of people break them)
You taught the networks a bitter lesson they shouldn't have had to learn about the ramifications of paying for interviews. By the time Hilton's representatives were pitching ABC to take the interview, the network couldn't feature her without taking a huge credibility hit -- which is why journalists don't associate themselves with paid interviews in the first place.
The biggest question which remains: How will news media treat her liberation from jail tomorrow? Will we see another stampede of coverage, or will the criticism of unbridled celebrity chasing finally have an impact? And how p.o.'ed will Michael Moore be after learning he got bumped from King's show to make room for Hilton?
I just hope you guys are ready to save us from ourselves once again.