Light years away from the world of back catalogue music projects, the entertainment press has been abuzz with the recent furor over the late night talk show lineup on NBC. This past Friday, Conan O'Brien exited The Tonight Show after a too-brief seven-month tenure, leaving Jay Leno able to leave his low-rated primetime show and take back control of the show he agreed to cede to O'Brien almost six years ago.
One of the delights during the whole mess was seeing O'Brien - in my opinion, one of the funniest guys on television - skewer his now-former network in as many ways as possible. In the last week of his show, one particularly biting running joke was the wasteful use of NBC's budget to create inordinately expensive characters for the show. The first and arguably best was the Bugatti Veyron Mouse, a hybrid of a wildly expensive car and a cheap set of mouse ears and whiskers. To add expense to insult, the "character" had a theme song - the original master recording of The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." The total price tag for the bit, said O'Brien? $1.5 million.
Now, Conan admitted on Friday's show - his last for NBC - that the bits were fake. (That night's idea of a Smithsonian-owned skeleton spraying beluga caviar onto a Picasso painting was probably a dead giveaway.) And hard-nosed journalists have uncovered that the car part of the mouse was on loan from the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. But what about the "Satisfaction" part of the joke? There's been a lot of rampant speculation, and I'd like to dispel a few myths based on my research.
Myth: The master of "Satisfaction" is valued at $1.5 million.
Fact: According to a report by ABC News, the value is much less:
New York-based entertainment lawyer Steve Gordon says that existing agreements between NBC and music licensing companies would allow the "Tonight Show" to play "Satisfaction" at no additional cost for a live or time-delayed performance.
If the show were to be rerun, he said, NBC might have to pay $25,000 to $50,000 for the song's use to its owner, ABKCO, which owns much of the Stones' early work. If a clip of the song were used on the Internet, he said, a similar or greater fee could apply, assuming ABKCO allowed permission for its use.
I'm interested to see what those "existing agreements" entail.
Myth: The sequence didn't end up online because NBC wanted to get back at Conan by censoring him.
Fact: With those licensing figures in mind, it's worth noting that the bit was actually excised from online streams of the show. (Neither Hulu nor NBC carried the bit. It was archived thanks to the motley crew at Gawker Media, though they might hear from somebody to take it down, who knows.)
Writes Chadwick Matlin of Slate's The Big Money regarding this online absence:
It was almost certainly too expensive to buy the Web rights to "Satisfaction." Conan alluded to it in his monologue, and NBC likely wouldn't approve the expense to put it on the Internet once they actually saw what the song was being used for. So, is this NBC being cheap, or being a censor?
Keeping in line with the numbers quoted from ABC, I'd say NBC was simply opting for frugality/cheapness.
Myth: Much of the cost was defrayed thanks to the business connections of NBC Universal and Universal Music Group, owners of The Stones' back catalogue.
Fact: This was really the impetus behind this entire post, and proof of how confusing the media morass can be. I'd read some speculation among Internet commenters that the relationship between Universal's entertainment assets might have exacerbated the "Satisfaction" situation. This isn't true in the least.
It is true that Universal owns the rights to the master of "Satisfaction." The Stones' early works - everything predating 1971's Sticky Fingers - are owned by ABKCO, whose material is distributed by Universal. (Ironically, the band's post-Sticky Fingers work, the masters of which they control, are also currently distributed by Universal - hence those recent remasters.)
But the idea that NBC Universal and Universal Music Group easily do business with each other due to common corporate DNA (and a similar logo) is a common misconception. UMG shares the exact same logo as Universal's film division, but the companies are only barely related - and in due time, will be completely separate.
In 2004, media conglomerate Vivendi sold 80 percent of its stake in Vivendi Universal Entertainment to General Electric. The move reduced Universal Music Group and Universal Studios to the most tenuous corporate relationship - one that is set to expire with the recent plan to turn NBC Universal into a joint product of GE and Comcast, with Vivendi selling entirely.
So when the deal is approved, it means Universal (the filmmakers) and Universal (the music makers) will have nothing to do with each other. Freaky!
If there's any moral we can divine from the situation, it's that the wild world of vertical integration doesn't always make things easier in the media industry. That, and putting mouse ears on an expensive car is hysterical.