Tell-all author Kitty Kelley, an outspoken critic of "checkbook journalism," was startled by the news: Her producers had offered several people between $5,000 and $20,000 to appear on her new television talk show.
"We pay people?" an incredulous Kelley asked the show's development chief in a three-way phone conversation between her, her production company and a Los Angeles Times reporter last week.
"You have to pay people," said John Goldhammer, senior vice president of program development for MCA-TV.
"Oh," said the author of unauthorized biographies on Jackie Onassis, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Nancy Reagan. "I didn't know that."
Their exchange came after the Times learned that three former members of superstar Michael Jackson's entourage had been offered between $5,000 and $20,000 to appear on the pilot production of "The Kitty Kelley Show." All three turned the producers down, but others did not.
"Yes, in order to make some of these people come forward, we did have to pay," said Ron Ziskin, executive producer of "The Kitty Kelley Show."
"The fact is, when you're looking for exclusivity, especially when you're not talking to the actual person [in this case, Jackson], you must compensate," he added.
Staff members of several talk shows contacted by the Times, including "Donahue" and "Sally Jessy Raphael," said that their guests are not paid. One executive who asked not to be named expressed alarm that payments made for the Kelley show might begin a bidding war for guests.
Like movie trailers and demo tapes, TV pilots are often pricey, slick sales tools that may not bear consistent resemblance to the finished product itself. The "The Kitty Kelley Show" pilot will be shown next week at the annual convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives in New Orleans, where station executives from around the country buy syndicated programming for their local schedules.
What they will see is a beaming, confident Kelley talking to Michael Jackson's sister LaToya and her manager-husband, Jack Gordon; Jackson's former sister-in-law, Enid, ex-wife of older brother Jackie Jackson; Spin magazine publisher Bob Guccione Jr.; a disguised member of one of the entourages of one of the members of the singing family; and parents Katherine and Joe Jackson, denying the charges of excess, violence, infidelity and obsession leveled against them.
Neither Ziskin nor Goldhammer would disclose which of Kelley's guests were paid, or how much. Neither seemed daunted by Kelley's edict that she would not practice "checkbook journalism" if the talk show becomes a series.
Kelley decried the offer of $10,000 that she said a well-known prime-time broadcast journalist allegedly offered former John F. Kennedy mistress Judith Campbell Exner. The money was to come out of the network news division's "research" fund in order to secure Exner's tell-all interview on TV, Kelley said.
Kelley said that she does not want her producers making a similar practice in the name of "research" on "The Kitty Kelley Show," because it might appear that her guests were saying what they were instructed to say in exchange for money.
Goldhammer said that Kelley simply was not familiar with the economic realities of getting people to appear before the cameras.
"This show will be classified as entertainment, not news," Goldhammer said.
"But even the network news shows fly people in, bring them to the studio in limos, pay their expenses. We certainly have money for people who come on. I don't understand what the problem is. Even the police pay for informants."
Ziskin said that the seven guests that his Four Point Entertainment eventually did gather for the hourlong pilot, which was shot in early December on Stage One at Fox Television Center, earned nowhere near what the tabloid show "A Current Affair" paid Anne W. Mercer to tell her story last year.
Mercer, a friend of Patricia Bowman, drove the 30-year-old Florida woman home from the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach the night that Bowman claims William Kennedy Smith raped her last spring. Smith has since been acquitted, but last November, "A Current Affair's" producers paid Mercer $40,000 to tell her version of events on camera.
"The Kitty Kelley Show" will not be another "A Current Affair," Ziskin insisted. Once the program goes into production for an hour a day, five days a week, he expects weekly production to cost about $200,000 -- a budget that precludes regular payment of guests (beyond the $536 that the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists requires that its members be paid for appearances on hourlong talk shows).
"When it's a non-airing pilot, you always compensate," he said.