How NBC Got Its Hands on ABC's Jackie Kennedy Exclusive

Jackie Kennedy Horizontal - H 2011
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Jackie Kennedy Horizontal - H 2011

For weeks, ABC News has been teasing an exclusive attached to the tome Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, which features previously unreleased audio recordings from early 1964 of Onassis talking frankly about her time in the White House.

The two-hour special anchored by Diane Sawyer and airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. will include extensive audio and an interview with Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of Onassis and John F. Kennedy. 

Caroline Kennedy holds the rights to the audio and ABC News was granted first broadcast rights to air the tapes. But NBC News aired portions of that audio last Friday on Nightly News with Brian Williams and again Monday and Tuesday on the Today show.

The book – from Hyperion, the imprint of ABC-parent Disney – includes an introduction by Caroline Kennedy and contributions from historian Michael Beschloss. But its selling point is the audio recordings of Onassis, who shares recollections about Martin Luther King, Jr., the Cuban Missile Crisis and her husband’s assassination.

So what happened to the ABC News exclusive? Apparently a Nightly News producer came across the book in a Manhattan bookstore, bought it and the network rushed multiple pieces to air. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell anchored segments for Today and MSNBC on Monday and Tuesday. And Chris Matthews also got in on the act, analyzing the White House ramifications for MSNBC viewers.

A spokesperson for Hyperion said the company reached out to NBC News: “We made NBC aware of the copyright and ABC News’ exclusive rights to that material and we urged NBC to respect those rights. We are confident that viewers who wanted the most in-depth coverage of the audiotapes, along with exclusive interviews with Caroline Kennedy and other exclusive material, are turning to ABC News.”

Portions of Sawyer’s exclusive interview with Caroline Kennedy aired last Friday on World News. But ABC News did not air any of the audio until Monday’s Good Morning America.

The release date for the book is Wednesday, Sept. 14. But it’s not unusual for booksellers to start selling particularly sought after titles before the official publication date. What is unusual about this particular book is it comes with extensive – and copyrighted – audio. But NBC News could use some of that audio under the auspices of fair use. What they couldn’t do, is craft their own two-hour special.

NBC News sources say the internal gloating was kept to a minimum. And one source noted that the whole situation is just grist for the news wars.

“This has been going on forever, whatever the big book is somebody ends up getting a copy of it.”

The Kennedy book also was something of a bargaining chip in the Kennedy family’s efforts to quash the History channel miniseries The Kennedys. History channel is part of AETN, which is owned by a consortium including Disney, NBC Universal and Hearst. Disney/ABC Television Group chief Anne Sweeney sits on the AETN board. And last January, sources told The Hollywood Reporter that Caroline Kennedy personally lobbied Sweeney to kill the miniseries and that Kennedy's cooperation with the book, including writing the introduction and promoting it on ABC, was part of those conversations.