ABC Pays Murdoch $1 Million Over O.J.

The O.J. Simpson book debacle seemed like an unmitigated disaster for media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his maverick publisher Judith Regan. In fact, Murdoch's empire had reaped a financial windfall before the embarrassed mogul cancelled pub­lication of the "If I Did It." Newsweek has learned that ABC's Barbara Walters had explored so seriously the idea of doing a Simpson interview to promote the book that when she balked at proceeding, ABC's Entertainment division had to pay Mur­doch's publishing arm a "kill fee" of as much as $1 million.

Kill fees are common in the publishing industry and in Hollywood. Typically, such a fee is paid after a prospective buyer has made a good-faith commitment to a project (although not necessarily signed a contract) before ultimately rejecting the content.

None of the people familiar with the ABC/News Corp. dealings would discuss the matter on the record for fear of anger­ing their employers. Both News Corp. and ABC are bound by non-disclosure agreements barring either party from discussing their negotiations. In a carefully nuanced statement to NEWSWEEK, ABC said, "We ultimately decided that this project was not in our best interest to pursue, and any conversations we had with Regan­ Books after this conclusion was reached were purely relationship based and confidential."

The payment is part of an intriguing subplot to the latest O.J. scandal. The book was supposed to be published by the Re­ganBooks imprint of Murdoch's Harper­Collins book division. But describing it as "ill-conceived," Murdoch cancelled publication last week after an explosion of public outrage. Regan had billed the tome as a "confession" by Simpson to the 1994 murder of his wife Nicole Brown-Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Simpson, who has since denied that he confessed in the book, was acquitted of murder charges in 1996, though he was subsequently found liable for their deaths in a civil case.

Negotiations between ABC and Regan began over the summer when Regan approached the network with the idea of a Simpson interview tied to the book's publication. ABC's news division immediately rejected the interview as un­savory, according to a senior ABC executive. Regan subsequently contacted ABC's entertainment division. Executives from the entertainment division approached Walters with the proposal in August, ac­cording to two other ABC insiders, with the idea that an interviewer of her stature would give the project an aura of legitimacy. Walters was said to have been interested enough to contact the book's ghostwriter, Pablo Fenjves, a former neighbor of Nicole Brown-Simpson. (Fenjves declined comment.) The ABC sources said Walters wanted to know whether the book was truly confessional, but discovered that Fenjves was still writing it. Ultimately, these people say, Walters decided the interview wasn't right for her. Her interest in the project lasted a total of 10 days, the ABC sources estimate.

Those sources say Walters was unaware of the payment of a kill fee before NEWSWEEK inquired about it. But three News Corp. sources say ReganBooks believed the network had strung it along unfairly. People in both camps said that ABC paid the kill fee either to avoid embarrassing press leaks about the dealings or to maintain cordial relations with the feisty Regan, who has a knack for cultivating authors from tabloid headlines. A non-disclosure agreement was signed by all of the parties, including Walters, ac­cording to sources at both News Corp. and ABC.

Earlier this month, after Regan had announced the book and a two-part interview slated for Murdoch's Fox broadcast network, Walters mentioned on her show "The View" that she'd spurned an opportunity to interview Simp­son. That angered News Corp. officials be­ cause Walters appeared to be incensed over the legitimacy of a project that she had previously consid­ered doing herself. According to a report in New York Observer, News Corp. threat­ened to send her a "cease and desist" letter after her comments on the scandal.

For now, that appears to be the final chapter in Walters' involvement in the saga. But the 12-year-old O.J. media circus shows no signs of losing steam.