Rob Lowe, Destructo Boy, has struck again.
In his latest career blunder, the NBC star upstaged network CEO Bob Wright at Summer TV Press Tour 2002 here today by leaking word that he would exit the drama series "The West Wing" in March.
Wright was one of the featured speakers at NBC's session today -- his first appearance at the press tour in two years -- but all the buzz among TV critics was about Lowe. As soon as Wright finished speaking, they swarmed NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, who had been standing in the back of the room, for details on Lowe's exit. Zucker confirmed Lowe's plans to leave the show.
Lowe, who plays White House deputy communications director Sam Seaborn, is leaving the series because producer Warner Bros. TV and NBC turned down his request for a big pay increase from his current salary of about $75,000 per episode, sources say.
Lowe is miffed that cast members Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and John Spencer all were rewarded with big pay hikes, from about $30,000 each per episode, after staging a work stoppage last July. The increases put their salaries on par with Lowe's.
But Lowe, clinging to the idea that he is the show's star, did not want to run with the pack. He sought a raise, sources say, after learning that the actual star, Martin Sheen, had his salary tripled.
Lowe was the highest-paid cast member when "The West Wing" debuted. Remember, the series originally was envisioned with him as the lead. Sheen, who didn't appear in the pilot episode until near its end, was a guest actor. But he quickly became the focus of the program, and as the series progressed, other supporting roles have been beefed up, too.
Zucker acknowledged that Lowe would be written out of the show in March, but insisted that meant he would be with "The West Wing" for "virtually" the entire season. He declined to discuss how Lowe's exit would be handled. Zucker also gave credit to Lowe for getting the program off to such a strong start. "He's the reason many of you standing here wrote so much about the show" before its debut, Zucker reminded critics.
It's true, the series generated a lot of interest before its debut because of the casting of the formerly famous Brat Packer, who had starred in feature hits "About Last Night . . ." and "St. Elmo's Fire" before committing career hara-kiri when he videotaped a 16-year-old girl in a sex act while attending the 1988 Democratic National Convention.
Last week, Lowe got snubbed when the Primetime Emmy nominations were announced. However, Sheen is up for best actor in a drama series, Janney for best actress. And Schiff, Spencer, Whitford, Dule Hill, Stockard Channing, Janel Moloney and even Mary-Louise Parker are all nominated for supporting roles.
Turns out NBC CEO Wright is one of those idiots who have TiVo and don't use it to zap out all the ads.
Wright says he's a "big TiVo user" -- mostly to watch sports programming. And sports commercials, he informed critics, are "generally sports-related."
Plus, he noted, "the commercials in the sports shows, and golf in particular, weave almost right into the shows. You're watching people that are players talking about equipment or things like that . . . so there's kind of a compatibility with the format."
So sports programming is TiVo-resistant. Too bad NBC is all but out of the sports business. Nonetheless, Wright said he was not particularly worried about TiVo-like technology that allows viewers to watch TV programs at their convenience and skip the ads.
He began his Q&A with a little stand-up comedy that tanked as badly as the stock of NBC parent General Electric, of which Wright is vice chairman:
"I just got a call from Mel Karmazin" -- the president and chief operating officer of CBS parent Viacom. "He tells me that they're firing all the people at CBS and he gave me a couple of options. He wanted to know if I wanted to be in the station job in San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia or D.C. I said, 'Mel, you just fired the guy in New York; you've already replaced him.' He said, 'Oh, I'm a day behind.' "
That painful episode over, Wright settled down in a chair and took questions.
He says he is "absolutely comfortable " with the accounting practices at GE -- but most people wouldn't understand them.
"We've tried, among the small group of people that I work with, to take everything we do and make it transparent. It just can't be done," Wright said.
"That's part of the dilemma of saying, 'We're going to open the doors, we'll explain everything.' It's just not feasible."
As for programming, Wright said he would be "thrilled" if the cast of "Friends" decided to come back for a 10th season, but that it was a small likelihood. Wright had "Friends" cast member Matthew Perry introduce him and took the occasion to ask Perry what he thought of the job opening on "The West Wing."
"Yeah, so I might be on 'West Wing' next year," Perry responded.
Wright was also asked what had happened to Scott Sassa, the former NBC West Coast president who is now without a title or a job description but who still has an office at NBC, and who is nowhere to be seen at the press tour.
Sassa, Wright said, is working on a "secret project."
Though no one asked him what the secret project was -- the critics appeared to be trying to figure out whether he was joking -- Wright quickly added: "If I told you what it was, it wouldn't be a secret, right?"
If it works out that NBC can do "what it is we'd like to do," then Sassa "will be with us for a long time." If not, "we'll take it from there," Wright said.
Rob Lowe also upstaged Tom Brokaw, who came here to tell critics that all of his documentaries will be called "Tom Brokaw Reports" for at least the next year, to take questions about the network's 9/11 anniversary coverage and to ding critics for the way they handled the May announcement that he would retire from the anchor chair in 2 1/2 years and would be replaced by Brian Williams.
"I thought I was announcing my decision to stay!" a travel-weary, T-shirted Brokaw had complained the night before at a "Saturday Night Live" cocktail party. Here's how he worded it in a shirt and tie during the opening to his Q&A session today: "As part of my new arrangement and what I'd like to call the renewal of my determination to stay at NBC -- a lot of you wrote about my departure -- it will be 'Tom Brokaw Reports' at least for a year."
Brokaw's publicist had detailed the news division's Sept. 11 plans: "Today" show from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., town hall meeting from 1 to 4 p.m., Brian Williams from 4 to 6:30 p.m., followed by a one-hour "Nightly News," and prime time will include "Concert for America," co-produced with the Kennedy Center.
Brokaw said one of the network's objectives was to stop the country's "drifting away" emotionally and intellectually from the events of a year ago.
Critics tried to suck Brokaw into a discussion of MSNBC's latest incarnation as a prime-time talk-TV network. He gave them a little -- "What I think is healthy for all of us is that we have all these choices. . . . Over the course of the day, there is a lot of information that is drawn from it," etc. -- but then stopped.
"I'm not here to talk about MSNBC," Brokaw said. "I came on here really to talk about what I'm doing and what we're doing, which I think is also part of that spectrum."
And speaking of message management, Brokaw said the Bush White House is better at managing for its purposes than the Clinton administration was.
"Most Republican administrations are," Brokaw said. "They're more corporate in their attitudes and they generally have better internal discipline than Democrats do. It's just a fixed part of life."