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Telegenic People Do It for Free

There was a time, not long ago, when on-air contributors with expertise on a particular topic would command lucrative contracts from networks, sometimes earning as much as $5,000 for one appearance on a network morning show. But the financial contraction has choked off many of these deals. Now, networks pony up very little or, in most cases, nothing at all for talking heads.

“It's a legitimate sign of the times,” says Hayden Meyer, who runs the alternative television department at APA.

And in today's cacophonous media universe, where airtime on a national program like NBC's Today or ABC's Good Morning America is like oxygen for would-be contributors working to build their brand and launch a media career, they do it for free.

“The days where we could get significant deals are pretty much over,” says Babette Perry, VP of Broadcast/West Coast for IMG. “Frankly, as an agent—and you don't like to hear agents tell you this—the truth of the matter is the networks are correct in that these contributors need the networks more than the networks need them.”

Contributor deals have ranged from $25,000 to $100,000 per year for a few dozen appearances, say agents and network executives, or $500 to $1,000 per appearance for an average contract. The most lucrative deals were multi-year contracts worth north of six figures. But those, always rare, are now all but extinct.

One agent recalls a multi-year deal worth nearly $250,000 for a medical expert. When the deal expired, according to the agent, the network suggested a strikingly different arrangement: The client could continue to appear—without getting paid.

These situations have become more common, say network executives. Contracts are not renewed when they expire, but the expert, who has already forged a relationship with the network and its viewers, is asked to appear gratis.

It can understandably be an uncomfortable conversation, observes one executive: “It's awkward, but you can find somebody else who will do it for nothing.”

Rosalind Wiseman has made dozens of television appearances. As an author, teacher and child-development expert, she's been on Today, GMA and CNN. And she has never been paid.

“I've never been asked to do a contract,” she says. “I would have jumped on it.”

Wiseman also writes a column for Family Circle and maintains her own Website, offering advice to parents and teens. For her, morning television's significant viewership among parents, especially mothers, makes it an advantageous platform.

“Of course I would love to get paid to go on the morning shows,” she says. “Who wouldn't? But I also think that this is a mutually beneficial relationship, particularly the morning shows. I do get that and acknowledge that. I've been on CNN a dozen times. But it's not the same kind of relationship as when [viewers] see you while they're having breakfast.”

Granted, networks and syndicated programs including Oprah and Dr. Phil still use paid contributors, but only those who are considered established media personalities will command advantageous deals.


ABC recently signed Melissa Rycroft for a summer gig of eight appearances on GMA. Rycroft's star rose on the most recent season of ABC's The Bachelor, where she was first picked and then summarily dumped by bachelor Jason Mesnick. Rycroft next competed on the network's Dancing With the Stars. Her pieces for GMA have included a field trip with kids to the baseball All-Star Game, fashion bargains and the country's best roller coasters.

“In the summer, you need someone who can get out there on the road and have a little fun,” says GMA executive producer Tom Cibrowski. “Melissa serves a great purpose in going out and bringing some fun back from the rest of the country, and she's great at it. She's got an incredible personality, and she brings a little extra sparkle to the program.”

The networks also keep a stable of political and financial contributors: Donna Brazile and Mellody Hobson on ABC, Dee Dee Myers and Dan Bartlett on CBS, Howard Fineman on MSNBC and Jean Chatzky on NBC.

But the names have to be big, and the time commitment significant. Fineman appears regularly on MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann and Hardball With Chris Matthews. And Brazile, erstwhile campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 presidential bid, is a regular on ABC's This Week and on CNN's political coverage. Her real-world experience and knack for witty repartee have made her a sought-after media personality.

ABC News recently produced a primetime special around Hobson, who has been a financial contributor on GMA since 2000. And while Hobson has been busier than usual during the economic downturn, ABC also keeps a stable of unpaid financial contributors on speed-dial.

And a big breaking news story, such as the death of Michael Jackson, does help networks loosen the purse strings. CBS News signed Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, while NBC added pop culture author Touré, who has more recently appeared on MSNBC commenting on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“Anyone can talk about anything,” says IMG's Perry. “But if someone has perspective or access to specific information that the network can't get anywhere else, the network is probably more flexible.

“But at the end of the day, getting exposure on Good Morning America or the Today show is going to help build your brand,” she adds. “You would almost pay them. I hate to say that, but the truth of the matter is, that's how the networks look at it.”