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UPDATED: U.S. Airways pilot Capt. 'Sully' jilts Matt Lauer for Katie Couric

January 23, 2009 |  2:39 pm

Sullenberger The heroic tale of Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger’s safe landing of a US Airways flight on the Hudson River on Jan. 15 has gotten caught up in the ugliness of the television booking wars.

CBS announced today that Sullenberger and his crew would give their first interviews to Katie Couric for a piece set to air on “60 Minutes” on Feb. 8. That provoked no small amount of displeasure at NBC’s “Today” show — Couric’s former stamping ground — which had booked Sullenberger and his family to talk to host Matt Lauer on Jan. 19. (Update: At 4:42 PT, CBS announced that Sullenberger will also go on "The Early Show" on Feb. 9, the Monday morning after his "60 Minutes" appearance.)

The “Today” interview was postponed at the request of the pilots union, which asked Sullenberger to hold off until federal officials had a chance to further investigate the cause of his plane’s engine failure. But producers had been assured by multiple representatives of the pilot as recently as Thursday that he still planned to give his first interview to the NBC morning show, a network source said.

“What Capt. Sullenberger did in the cockpit on Flight 1549 was heroic and admirable,” said “Today” spokeswoman Megan Kopf. “Unfortunately, people close to him have not acted nearly as admirably over the past few days. They gave us their word and then broke their commitment. We wish Capt. Sullenberger the best.”

So what happened? It may have been a simple ratings calculation. “60 Minutes” has averaged 15.5 million viewers this season and regularly places among Nielsen’s top 10 shows. “Today,” while the most-watched morning program, draws about a third of the audience.

Alex Clemens, a spokesman for the pilot's family, said that Sullenberger decided to speak to "60 Minutes" after consulting with the four other members of the flight crew, who made a "collective decision" that that was the best venue for their first interview. He said they then plan to make the rounds on the morning shows, beginning with "Today." 

But NBC suspects something else is afoot. A network source said Clemens told "Today" producers that he was looking out for the interests of not only the Sullenbergers but of "future Sullenbergers."

Clemens disputed the suggestion that he was seeking financial gain for the family. He said that he merely observed to a "Today" booker that the Sullenbergers have been flooded with enough endorsement and book offers to pay the college tuition of future generations.

“It is in fact my responsibility — and my honor — to have been asked to help protect the interests of the Sullenberger family," Clemens said. "However, for an 'NBC source' to insinuate that I have asked any news organization for any financial incentives in exchange for Capt. Sullenberger’s appearance is insulting, naïve and absurd.”

"At no time did CBS offer any financial incentives to the family," he added. "At no time were any financial incentives sought from CBS or any other media organization. Capt. Sullenberger is a man of extraordinary integrity, and anyone alleging anything different is way off base.”

A “60 Minutes” spokesman confirmed that Sullenberger was not offered any financial incentive to come on the program and that the interview was not part of any packaged book deal with sister company Simon & Schuster.

— Matea Gold

(Photo courtesy AP /Safety Reliability Methods)

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