In television, you are what your agent can get for you. Deal-making is the new Great American Pastime. When Phyllis George said goodbye to "The NFL Today," live on CBS, she paused in mid-tear to congratulate cohost Brent Musburger on the great deal he'd struck with the network. It seemed a turning point of one kind or another.
George, or rather her agent Ed Hookstratten, had just wrung a handsome deal out of CBS, too. Of course, Musburger's was what used to be called a seven-figure deal but what is now called a "two-comma deal." George is still reportedly in one-comma territory. but give her time.
Comes now the strange case of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, stars of the deservedly popular syndicated movie review series "At the Movies" and until seven years ago just a coupla guys reviewing movies in Chicago. That was BTV -- before television. They just completed months of negotiations with "The CBS Morning News," which wanted to add them to the weekly roster of special features for the show's latest format, which premieres Jan. 14 with Phyllis George in the copilot seat.
Siskel and Ebert wanted this, Siskel and Ebert wanted that. They didn't want to get up early so they held out for taping their segments a day ahead. they wanted to appear on other networks, too, so they resisted the CBS bid for exclusivity. What they wanted, they pretty much got, and then having gotten it, they decided they really weren't interested. It will go down in the annals of deal-making as one swell scrap, and so what if it produced nothing? After all the dealing, they decided they were too busy to take on an added chore.
They are busy boys. In addition to their syndicated show, Siskel reviews movies for the Chicago Tribune, Ebert for the Sun-Times. Both also appear on local TV station newscasts each week. Ebert is also on the radio, teaches a film course and is busily promoting his new book "A Kiss Is Still a Kiss."
A buck is still a buck, but the team turned down a rumored $220,000 a year to add the "Morning News" to their schedules. They won't comment on the figure, and neither will their agent, Don Ephraim, who says the reason they won't do the "Morning News" is that "They are so busy, they have such a crunch, that there just isn't time."
"Oddly enough, Ephraim told you the truth," says Ebert (the fat one) from Chicago, where he and Siskel have been taping a few "At the Movies" shows to stockpike through January, a slow movie month during which both take vacations.The irony is that both critics fought with Tribune Entertainment Co., which syndicates and produces "At the Movies," for the right to appear on CBS. This was what held up negotiations for weeks.
"Tribune wasn't going to give us permission, so we got mad," says Ebert. "Then when we got permission, we were immature." Both men realized they are overextended as it is and couldn't take on the "Morning News."
During the long negotiating period, rumors floated out of CBS that the "Morning News"" current movie critic, Pat Collins, was infuriated about the proposed encroachment on her turf, but Siskel and Ebert say they are not aware of any objections filed by her. "I didn't hear anything at all about Pat Collins," says Ebert.
Siskel and Ebert weren't going to do actual reviews on the show anyway, just what Siskel calls "Sunday-article debates rather than individual film review debates," discussions of movie trends and the like, chats that would be "more in contrast to the other morning reviewers who do the one-minute, joke-off-the-title reviews."
That the negotiations bore no fruit has left some bitter feelings at CBS News. Throughout, CBS bent over backward to meet Ephraim's demands for the team, including a nonexclusivity clause that would have allowed Siskel and Ebert to appear at will on other networks. Last night, they appeared on the ABC "Nightline" show to talk with guest host Sander Vanocur about Christmas scenes from Hollywood movies.
One of the real stumbling blocks sounds pretty trifling considering the money involved: Siskel and Ebert didn't want to get up early in the morning to appear live on the show from Chicago. The pair held out for the option of pretaping appearances to avoid the dawn's early light. The dawn's early light scares movie critics almost the way it scares Dracula.
"We wouldn't get up that early. That's ridiculous," says Siskel. "It's insane to get up that early." He wouldn't get up early for an extra 100 grand a year? "I wouldn't," said Siskel pugnaciously. "How's that? I've got a baby. Roger's got himself. He's his own baby. And you can quote me on that."
Ebert was apprised of what Siskel had said. The fun of writing about these two is telling them what they said about each other. "Let me think," said Ebert, pondering his response. "Well, when it comes to being a baby, Gene would have to get up pretty early in the morning to have anything on me. I would also add this: He can visit my Pulitzer Prize any time he'd like to see one."
Now both these pre-baby-boom babies will get to sleep late. "In the end, it was just physically impossible," Siskel said late last week. "We sure tried. It was not easy to say no to such a complimentary offer. It's very hard to say, "That's it, I don't think I can do it," but the fact is, we don't think we could."