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Shriver's golden goodbye

She won a lucrative 3-year-exit buyout from NBC in 2004 after becoming California's first lady.

March 17, 2008|Matea Gold and Evan Halper | Times Staff Writers

In the three years after she left her post at "Dateline NBC," Maria Shriver collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from the network as part of an exit deal, even as she pondered whether she could continue her journalism career while her husband was governor of California.

Shriver, who relinquished her role at "Dateline" in February 2004, three months after Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn into office, continued to receive paychecks from NBC into 2007, according to statements of economic interest the governor is required to file in Sacramento.

The documents indicate that NBC paid her between $100,000 and $1 million during each of the last three years. Daniel Zingale, Shriver's chief of staff, declined to specify the exact amount. NBC had no comment.

The payments to Shriver were part of an "exit agreement" she arranged with the network in April 2004 after executives became uncomfortable with her working as a journalist while she was the state's first lady, Zingale said.

Had the network fired her, NBC would have been obligated to pay Shriver her full salary for the three years that remained on her contract. Instead, Shriver resigned with an option to eventually return to the news division. In exchange, NBC paid her a "fraction" of her salary for those years, he said.

"Given her career at NBC and the election of her husband as governor of California, Maria found herself in an unusual situation," Zingale said. "But there is absolutely nothing unusual about her exit agreement with NBC."

In 2004, NBC News executives cast Shriver's departure as an "extended leave of absence," expressing hope that she would return. Since then, she has appeared once on the network, as host of a special produced by the entertainment division about Roy Horn, the Seigfreid & Roy entertainer who was mauled by a tiger during a Las Vegas show.

Shriver contemplated returning to the news division as recently as late as March 2007, Zingale said. The exit agreement, along with Shriver's option to be reinstated, expired last year.

Nevertheless, a large office in "Dateline's" Burbank bureau is still assigned to Shriver, according to a news division employee. No one has been allowed to move into the spacious room, although it is sometimes used by correspondents to shoot stand-ups.

The payments NBC made to Shriver are commonplace in television news, in which networks are contractually bound to honor the terms of their agreements with talent, even if they decide they can no longer use them on the air.

High-priced anchor deals remain an industry standard, even as news divisions struggle to trim costs in other areas. About 40 NBC News employees were laid off in late 2006 when the network launched a corporate-wide belt-tightening effort, and more cuts followed. In all, the network's 6,000-person news operation -- which includes cable channels MSNBC and CNBC, 10 network-owned affiliates and Spanish-language network Telemundo -- is expected to shrink by about 400 positions over two years.

Shriver, who was reluctant to leave her post at NBC, received her last payment from the network in August 2007. At several points last year, the first lady said publicly that she had been in talks to return to the news division. (NBC executives declined to comment.)

"Actually, I went back to them this year and I said, 'OK, now this is ridiculous, I should be able to come back,' " she told workers at Google in May, according to a Reuters report. "You know, I've never had a conflict before, and I've always been in a, quote, political family."

But Shriver said she decided not to return after observing the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death that February.

"I kind of made up my mind I did not want to go back into the news division after watching the Anna Nicole Smith frenzy," she said. "I was just flabbergasted by that. How it was across the board, all-encompassing, and I just thought to myself, 'This is not where I want to work.' "

Shriver was in television news for 25 years before her husband's election forced her to halt her career. She got her start at a local station in Philadelphia and went on to co-anchor the "CBS Morning News" before moving to NBC in 1986. She served as a contributing anchor to "Dateline" for most of her time there.

She took a leave from the network when Schwarzenegger launched his 2003 gubernatorial campaign, then returned to NBC in November of that year after he was sworn in, saying she "felt at home when I went back into the newsroom."

Shriver made two appearances as an anchor of "Dateline" that winter. But questions immediately arose about whether it was appropriate for her to continue working as a journalist, especially after reports that she was playing a prominent behind-the-scenes role in her husband's administration.

In February 2004, the longtime anchor said she had asked to be relieved of her duties at NBC, adding that it was clear that "my journalistic integrity and that of NBC News will be constantly scrutinized."

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