A pilot by any other name

Committed to the First Amendment
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After some initial confusion about the state of his TV career last week, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume asked Hearst-Argyle/NBC not to pitch the talk-show pilot/presentation tape/prospective pilot that had become the subject of debate in media-ethics circles. We think it was the right decision.

Mfume is certainly no stranger to TV. He hosts a talk show, The Bottom Line, on Hearst-Argyle's Baltimore affiliate, WBAL-TV, and fronts a series of occasional syndicated specials, The Remarkable Journey, for Hearst-Argyle's production arm. The difference is that, since January of this year, Hearst-Argyle and NBC have teamed up on the syndication side. That raised the issue of how effectively Mfume could criticize NBC, the network, while also working with NBC, the syndicator, on a daily talk show that has the potential to return many millions to its star (see Oprah, Maury, Jerry, Rikki, Jenny, Sally, etc.).

Frankly, we haven't noticed his TV persona cooling his fire on the TV-diversity issue. Witness the dressing down he gave NBC and ABC two weeks ago over what he said was their "snail's pace" on diversity. But the suggestion of conflict of interest did seem to have him scrambling for the right answer last week as NBC's snail trail appeared to lead to his doorstep.

Mfume had told us that the joint syndication company owned by NBC and Hearst-Argyle was not shopping a talk-show pilot. Well, there was a tape, he conceded, but he characterized it as a "presentation" in an interview with BROADCASTING & CABLE: "I've got enough to do right here. I can't take on another project."

We're not sure there is enough room to wedge an AFTRA membership card in the space between a presentation tape and a pilot. But that question seemed to have been rendered moot by Mfume's conversation with TheNew York Times. Mfume appeared to acknowledge to the Times
that it was a pilot, or at least a "prospective one" (darn, if that hair hasn't been split into three parts), but, because the show would be syndicated and not on the network, it "would not be an NBC show." He also said that no money had changed hands, no deal has been made, and, if it did turn into a syndicated show down the road, it would do nothing to temper his criticism of the network-television industry.

Again, we will take him at his word that he would have put his principles before his pocketbook. But let's be real: With the end of fin-syn rules, networks are just as much in the syndication business as they are in the network business, or certainly want to be. NBC, last to that party, as much as anyone. Unless he had done the syndicated talk show for free or had taken a leave from the NAACP while doing it, there would always have been legitimate questions about the conflict. He has now put those questions to rest.

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