The Elusive Lewinsky Interview
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 30, 1998; Page D01
Oprah Winfrey said yesterday she has walked away from an exclusive interview with Monica Lewinsky because the world's most famous former intern wanted to be paid.
"I was told that I did have it, and then the conversation moved in a direction that I did not want to go," Winfrey said on her daytime talk show. "I do not pay for interviews, no matter what the payment is called."
Judy Smith, Lewinsky's spokeswoman, declined comment. But sources familiar with the talks say the Monica camp did not ask Winfrey for any payment. Instead, Lewinsky allies believe that Winfrey would have made a major profit marketing the interview and that Lewinsky was entitled to the foreign distribution rights.
The lucrative foreign market turns out to be the key to Lewinsky's hopes of scoring a big enough payday to cover her substantial legal bills. As she sifts through a large pile of offers, Lewinsky has concluded that virtually everyone in the media has made money from the White House sex scandal and that she should at least be able to pay her debts, the sources said.
When President Clinton testified about his affair with Lewinsky, there was much jousting with prosecutors about the definition of sexual relations. Now the scandal has produced an argument about the definition of money.
"Whether you call [foreign] rights money or whether you call it something else, it depends on what your definition of money was," Winfrey told TV Guide. The discussion of "who would own the rights to the tape," she said, was "really the turning point" in the breakdown of the talks.
But Lewinsky's allies believe Winfrey was not indifferent to the color of money. The Lewinsky camp was told that Winfrey's company, Harpo Productions, would sell the interview to ABC for a potentially lucrative licensing fee, the sources said. The interview would then air in prime time on ABC rather than on Winfrey's syndicated show.
An ABC official confirmed that the network once paid Winfrey's company a licensing fee -- technically to cover production costs -- for her interview with Michael Jackson. The network already has a deal with Winfrey for her TV movies and other projects. Industry executives say the licensing fee for a one-hour production can easily exceed $1 million.
A Harpo spokeswoman would not discuss the negotiations.
Landing Lewinsky, whose voice has never been heard by the public, would be a huge television coup, and all the major news and entertainment programs are vying for the opportunity. But network shows such as "20/20," "60 Minutes" and "Dateline NBC" are bound by rules barring news organizations from paying for interviews, and their networks would automatically control the foreign rights.
Lewinsky has the option of granting her first interview to a network in Japan, Italy or another foreign country, where television organizations, not bound by American-style rules, have offered her millions of dollars. But she is said to prefer doing the interview in this country and selling the international rights.
Would a television interview hurt Lewinsky's chances of selling a book, given the lukewarm interest publishers have shown in such a project? Lewinsky is said to believe that she can do both by negotiating to limit the time and subjects of any TV appearance.
In the TV Guide interview, Winfrey said: "I think Monica's gotten a really bad rap. I've been 21 and know what it's like to be 21. And an intern. In a situation where the president of the company acts like he likes you."
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