New York superagent Judith Regan has bought the rights to the life stories of runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks and her fiance after offering them $500,000 for a package that -- in an unusual twist -- included the first news interview with the couple.
NBC anchor Katie Couric interviewed the couple last weekend for an hour-long prime-time special to air Tuesday, but the network's news and entertainment divisions say NBC isn't paying Wilbanks and John Mason a dime. A deal memo to the couple's spokesman, written by a Regan staffer, specified that an interview would be part of the agreement.
"I really can't comment about any decision I make about who gets interviews if I have the rights to things," Regan said yesterday. But, she said, "NBC has not paid for an interview. Nobody pays for interviews."
NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the news division never pays for interviews. "This was a 'get' by Katie," she said. "It takes a lot of work. You talk to a lot of people. We put our best people out there."
There was fierce competition to land the first sit-down with Wilbanks, who sparked a media frenzy by fleeing her Georgia home days before her scheduled April 30 wedding and falsely telling police she had been abducted. Diane Sawyer, co-host of ABC's "Good Morning America," spent an hour on the phone with Mason trying to land the interview.
Why Regan, president of ReganMedia and publisher of Regan Books, a HarperCollins division, was involved in negotiations over the interview remains unclear. She has had a long working relationship with "Dateline" Executive Producer David Corvo, who will produce the Couric special, excerpts of which will also be shown on "Today." Regan has placed a number of her high-profile authors on NBC, including Amber Frey, Scott Peterson's mistress, although she has also worked with CBS's "60 Minutes," the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and other programs.
A June 3 e-mail dictated by Doug Grad, senior editor at ReganMedia, says: "$500,000 -- To be paid after the completion of the FIRST INTERVIEW with both Jennifer Wilbanks and fiance, John Mason. (This will also be the FIRST TV INTERVIEW for Jennifer Wilbanks. And, neither party will provide any other interviews for any other entity until this Interview airs.)"
The e-mail said the interview must be completed no later than June 13 -- Couric's sit-down took place Sunday -- and that "TV Rights would also include Exclusive Dramatic Rights (TV/Movie rights)."
Regan did not dispute the memo but noted it was "not a signed document."
The New York Post first reported Regan's role yesterday, but Rebecca Marks, a spokeswoman for NBC's entertainment division, denied the tabloid's report that her unit had made a $500,000 deal for a runaway bride movie. She said Regan's company pitched such a film but NBC had passed.
Wilbanks, who is receiving treatment at a mental health facility, apologized earlier this month while pleading no contest to faking her own kidnapping. She was sentenced to probation and community service, was fined $2,550 and is repaying the city of Duluth, Ga., $13,250 in overtime costs related to the search for her.
According to two sources familiar with the negotiations, Wilbanks's spokesman, Andy Parsons, told people that an exclusive interview with Couric was part of the negotiations with ReganMedia. Parsons asked at least one other network to bid for a combination of the interview and television movie rights but was turned down, the sources said.
Parsons said Mason needs the money and stressed that the negotiations must remain confidential, according to the sources. In a series of interviews yesterday, Parsons said: "I can tell you quite categorically that John and Jennifer were not paid a penny for that interview. . . . The interview done with NBC was done purely on its own merits. We have been deluged with different offers. Katie Couric was extremely professional."
Asked if he was concerned that Wilbanks might appear to be cashing in on a phony abduction that she staged, Parsons said: "What John and Jennifer have gone through, the lies cast about, the way their past has been dragged through the media, the way they've been vilified by sectors of the public and the media -- if they do do something, good luck to them."