For morning TV’s ‘bookers,’ a constant race to secure ratings-grabbing guests

September 14, 2011

A tornado tears across southwestern Missouri, visiting devastation on the small town of Joplin. The dramatic news breaks in network TV newsrooms in New York in the early evening hours of May 22. What next? If you’re a booker for one of the networks’ morning programs, the first rule is this: Get there. Fast. Being first on the scene often means getting “the get” — securing interviews with the most newsworthy and compelling people. Bookers, or, more formally, “segment producers,” don’t shoot video or pictures or collect facts that correspondents report. Their job is to persuade a suddenly famous nobody to share his or her story on air with millions of strangers, preferably from a couch in a New York studio. Live television demands a constant flow of talking heads; bookers are the people who wrangle, cajole, sweet-talk — and often pay for — those heads to speak. ¶ Speed is the biggest advantage for the small army of people who produce morning television, the most competitive part of the 24-7 news cycle. In the elbow-throwing TV booking business, being first can mean nailing an exclusive that denies competitors the same interviews. In other words, the “Today” show’s gain is a loss for “Good Morning America,” CBS’s “Early Show” and the cable networks. And vice versa.

“If we aren’t knocking on your door, we’ll be calling. If we haven’t called, we’ll be at your door,” said Marc Victor, a senior producer who oversees booking for NBC’s “Today Show,” which scrambled freelance and staff bookers to Joplin. “It’s really the first person there who gets the exclusive, and that’s the prize. Either you’re aggressive and on top of it 24 hours a day, or you lose.”

Rival bookers sometimes collaborate, “sharing” a suddenly besieged individual who otherwise might be reluctant to commit to just one program. When all else fails, however, they do it the old-fashioned way: They steal each other’s “gets.”

Remember Ted Williams, the golden-voiced homeless man whose down-on-his-luck story briefly captivated the nation earlier this year? “Today” thought it had him locked up for an exclusive interview in January. “Good Morning America” thought otherwise.

When Williams stepped out of NBC’s studios for a smoke, a “GMA” booker pounced, spiriting him away to a waiting car.

“We basically kidnapped him,” Santina Leuci, “GMA’s” senior editorial producer, said in a recent magazine interview.

The bookers’ first-on-the-spot credo makes them the advance guard of any media circus. They’re the unseen presence at every trial of the century, natural disaster, school shooting or tabloid-quality “human-interest” story, from “Octomom” Nadya Suleman to Casey Anthony, the Florida woman acquitted in the death of her toddler daughter, Caylee.

The Joplin tornado left some bookers in a pickle. Because direct flights to the area from New York and Washington — the two most booker-centric cities — had stopped by early evening, the networks’ reps had to find other ways in.

One network booker made it to Joplin from New York by 5 p.m. the next day only to discover that her rivals were already combing the countryside. By nightfall, she found herself driving through a dark and disordered landscape, guided only by the lights of TV crews who were interviewing survivors.

“You live in constant dread of being the last one there,” said the booker, who asked not to be named because her employer hadn’t authorized her to speak for this article. “You’re always freaking out that you’ll get beaten . . . It’s like ‘The Amazing Race.’ ”

Unlike bookers who produce Sunday-morning talk shows and negotiate with sophisticated politicians and their staffs, morning TV bookers have a special challenge. Although they frequently maneuver for celebrities, such as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (an ABC “get”), their targets quite often are people who’ve never appeared on TV or dealt with an onslaught of requests to do so. This sometimes means negotiating with people suspected of crimes or who are notorious for other reasons. One booker recalled that a sought-after interview fell apart after the interviewee said he couldn’t travel to New York to appear on camera. The reason? His probation officer had forbidden him to leave the state he was in.

Charm and sensitivity can come in handy, bookers say, especially during natural disasters or other calamities. They sometimes write handwritten notes to victims’ kin, expressing sympathy while gently urging them to appear on camera.

“You try to make it personal,” said Sarah Boxer, a CBS producer. After a tragedy, “people are stunned and shocked by what has happened, and doing a live interview is not the first thing on their mind. You want to make them comfortable and let them know that you’d be honored if you would tell us and our viewers” their stories.

In the aftermath of the Giffords shooting in Tucson in January, Boxer left cupcakes on the doorsteps of victims’ families along with a personal note. She struck up a relationship with a man whose son had died. She said he later expressed his gratitude for her humane handling of the situation by writing a note to her reading, “Thank you, cupcake girl.”

Others bookers ante up with flowers, chocolates and bottles of wine. The standard inducement for anyone who signs on is a trip to New York, a night or two in a Manhattan hotel, and a per-diem allowance for meals, all courtesy of the network.

Celebrity horsepower helps, too. Deals are often sealed by big-name anchors (most anchors have personal bookers). Ann Curry won over Suleman in early 2009 by showing up at her home in Southern California. On the other hand, “Today’s” Matt Lauer couldn’t convince kidnapping victim Jaycee Dugard to sit for an interview despite a personal appeal.Dugard spoke instead to Diane Sawyer and ABC, which a year ago had paid Dugard between $100,000 and $200,000 to “license” video of her, according to people at ABC.

Yes, money is pretty persuasive, too.

Although the networks say they don’t compensate people for interviews — paying news sources is considered ethically dubious — they have made licensing agreements and other arrangements to compensate the most desirable guests, sometimes to the tune of six figures and beyond.

Last year, for example, ABC News and NBC News acknowledged that they licensed home videos of the rescued Chilean miners who were featured in “exclusive” reports on “Good Morning America” and the “Today Show.”

Such payments aren’t unusual in the competitive morning field, said Howard Bragman, whose Los Angeles public-relations agency represents celebrities and other newsmakers. “I didn’t come up with that [licensing fee] system, so I can’t take responsibility for it,” said Bragman, who is a paid consultant to “Good Morning America” but said he does not favor the network when placing his clients.

ABC News has received the most negative publicity for making such deals. Lawyers for Anthony revealed in a hearing last year that the network had paid $200,000 for her cooperation in its coverage. The network in January paid another $15,000 to a Florida man it interviewed on “Good Morning America,” Roy Kronk, who found Caylee’s remains (ABC said it only paid to license Kronk’s photo of a dead snake, not for the interview, after Kronk had theorized that snakes might have slowed the police search for Caylee’s body in a swampy part of Orlando).

The Disney-owned network denies published reports, however, that it induced a juror in the Anthony trial to talk by offering her and her family a trip to Walt Disney World.

But the controversy over such episodes — which included ABC’s offer of a $10,000 licensing fee to a woman who claimed, in a disputed story, that she had injected her 8-year-old daughter with Botox — prompted the network this summer to end its practice of paying licensing fees to people it interviews.

“We will not compensate a source for any material that might be part of an interview,” spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. Such payments “created a perception problem. People believed this was a de facto payment for an interview. We are out of that business. Period.”

As to whether that puts ABC at a disadvantage against its rivals in booking guests, Schneider said: “That’s fine with us. The reputation of ABC News is the most important thing we have.”

The nobodies who suddenly find they are somebodies are learning, in turn, to charge high prices to talk. Network bookers said representatives of Anthony’s parents, George and Cindy Anthony, asked for as much as $1 million for an interview. In the end, the Anthonys agreed to appear on the syndicated “Dr. Phil” show, which broadcast an interview Monday.

Despite the best efforts of bookers, some “gets” remain ungotten. Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) haven’t spoken to the media since resigning from their respective jobs amid allegations of sexual misconduct. They’re in high demand.

But the real prizes, morning TV bookers say, are two infamous women: Amanda Knox, the young American who is appealing her conviction in Italy for the sexual assault and murder of a British woman, and Casey Anthony herself. Neither has committed to doing an interview.

If they do, you can bet a few bookers, and probably a lot of them, will be knocking on their doors.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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