NBC Chairman Grant A. Tinker was misquoted in yesterday's Style story on the Johnny Carson-Joan Rivers contretemps. Tinker was referring to the Rivers program, not Carson's, when he said, "If enough people want to see it, I guess we ought to let them."
Hostilities escalated yesterday in the great Carson-Rivers rift of 1986. The ballad of Johnny and Joan is a tale of show biz morality, loyalty and disloyalty, incomes and egos, and more charges and countercharges than in all of "North and South: Book II."
In "Carson and Rivers: Book II," spokespersons for each side insisted they were the ones who have behaved decently upon making the announcement Tuesday that Joan Rivers, frequent guest host of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," was bolting to start her own competing late-night talk show in the fall.
"Johnny just feels it's a rather shabby way of doing business," said Carson spokesman Jim Mahoney yesterday. "He put her on the show and gave her her biggest break. This is a shabby way of doing things."
"She did exactly what she was supposed to do in the area of honor and morality," countered Barry Diller, chairman of Fox Television, which will produce the Rivers hour.
Part of the friction centers on the fact that Carson was not told earlier of Rivers' plans to set up a shop of her own right around the corner. The Rivers camp insists she made every effort to reach him by phone from Las Vegas before a public announcement of the plan but that Johnny wouldn't take the call.
Told that Carson was offended by her failure to notify him, Rivers spokesman Richard Grant said yesterday, "Miss Rivers was equally as offended that Mr. Carson didn't accept her call. She called Monday night from Las Vegas. We have the computer sheet from the hotel to prove the call was made."
Mahoney said that by the time Rivers called, Carson had heard about the new show on his own and said, "That's after the fact; what's there to talk about?"
What Carson found "shocking," Mahoney said, was that his longtime producer, Peter Lassally, said that Rivers and her manager-husband Edgar Rosenberg phoned him Monday night and asked Lassally to sign on as producer of the Rivers show!
Apprised of this allegation, Diller said yesterday, "I believe that not to be true" and "I can't imagine it to be true." He said Rivers would have had no authority to do it anyway. "We are the producers of the show," Diller said. "They can't offer anybody a job. I guarantee you no one from Fox made such a call."
Diller said the deal was signed with Rivers 2 1/2 months ago and that a covenant of it was that no advance disclosures be made. He said Rivers and her husband Edgar told their daughter and no one else, but that Rivers pleaded over the weekend that she be allowed to tell Carson. "The first person she told, other than her daughter, was Johnny Carson," Diller declared.
Grant said that when Rivers finally reached Carson by phone on Tuesday, the conversation consisted of "Hello, Johnny?" "Click!" Yes, he hung up on her.
Meanwhile, Rivers' claims that she got higher ratings, during her guest-hosting weeks, than Carson regularly earns when he is host, were disputed by NBC. The comparison is unfair, spokesman Gene Walsh said from Burbank, because Rivers' shows are all new, while many of Carson's are repeats. Factoring out the Monday night "Best of Carson" reruns and other weeks of Carson repeats during the year, Carson had a 7.8 rating this season while Rivers had a mere 7.6.
Oh, it's heating up now, folks.
At her press conference, Rivers claimed not only higher ratings, but a higher "rate card" for "The Tonight Show" with her than when Carson was hosting -- meaning, commercials allegedly cost more when she was doing the show. Mahoney denounced this allegation as ridiculous. And later in the day, Diller conceded it had been a "misstatement" made "in the heat of" the press conference.
"That's just not correct," Diller said. "But it is true that she out-rates him."
Diller, saying he felt there'd already been "enough noise to last us a long time" on this matter, seemed surprised by all the brouhaha. "I just think that for big, giant NBC and the big, giant 'Tonight Show' and living institution Johnny Carson to be concerned with Little Miss Rivers and tiny Fox Broadcasting Co., well, I find it amusing," Diller said.
He insisted the goal is not to topple Carson from his long-held throne.
"This is not Joan versus Johnny as if she's going to beat him," Diller scoffed. "She's not going to beat him! That's absurd! We hope to add viewers to the time period. We may take some viewers away from Carson, but only some. If we get just 40 percent of the 'Tonight Show's' ratings, it would be enormously profitable for us."
Even in such earth-rattling crises as this, there are bound to be voices of calm. NBC Chairman Grant A. Tinker stopped watching next season's pilots in Burbank long enough to say of the Rivers move that "jumping across the street is hardly unheard of in this business" but that "it did seem passing strange that it happened with the speed and the dispatch that it did."
He also said of Rivers, "We wish her well." And of "The Tonight Show," Tinker said, "I've always thought of Johnny's show about the way I think of 'Dallas.' If enough people want to see it, I guess we ought to let them."
Tinker also noted that "Late Night with David Letterman," which follows Carson, is the real comer in late night television. "He keeps adding a new viewer every night," Tinker said admiringly.
Rivers is scheduled to appear on the Letterman show and on NBC's "Today" show next week, "Today" on Monday and Letterman on Tuesday. Sources indicated yesterday those appearances are still on.
Although Carson frequently jokes about such presumably painful topics as his three divorces in his celebrated nightly monologues, he made no reference to the Rivers disclosure on Tuesday night's show. But during a commercial break, an NBC source said, a member of the studio audience called out, asking him what he thought, and when he said "I wish her the best in whatever she does," the studio audience went "Oooooo."
Many have tried and none have succeeded in going up against Carson in his two dozen years on NBC. Dick Cavett, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, even former "Tonight" host Jack Paar all took a stab at it. In more recent years, the competition has included a fabled fiasco, "Thicke of the Night," starring Canadian TV personality Alan Thicke.
And through it all, not a dent in Johnny's armor.
Diller was asked about the $10 million that Fox is reported to be paying Rivers for her services. "It's untrue," he said, declining to give another figure but saying, "We think it's the biggest commitment ever made to an individual for a single show." He also said Fox would have news of another new program today.
The Rivers show will be carried by the six Fox stations owned by Rupert Murdoch and by as many other independent (non-network-affiliated) stations as Fox can line up. The program is part of a package of programming with which Fox aspires to become a national fourth network -- another trick that has been tried before, by others, but so far without success.
Carson, who won a Peabody Award for his television work earlier in the week, could, of course, not be reached directly for comment. Nor could Rivers, who was at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, one of her professional haunts.
But the spokespersons did a pretty good job in their behalfs. "Obviously, whatever she's saying is serving her purposes," said Carson's Mahoney. And from the Rivers camp, Diller sighed and said, "I don't know. It's all a little silly."