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NBC's rivals and Fox may try to sink its "Titanic' deal

Like the great ship itself, everything about the movie Titanic has been huge and record-setting. But there has been one iceberg in the film's success story: the deal cut by NBC to acquire the television rights to the movie.

In the four months since that deal was negotiated, it has been labeled the biggest bargain in television history. It also has been called the biggest disaster in the history of selling movies to TV.

The story behind the negotiations has a classic theme: a long voyage marked by broken hearts, intrigue and lots of high-profile passengers.

Taking the side of disaster are executives at the 20th Century Fox film studio, who are so upset by the relative pittance of $30-million that NBC negotiated with Paramount Pictures, Fox's partner in the financing of the picture, that they are considering filing a legal claim against Paramount.

Siding with Fox are executives at CBS and ABC, who formally complained to Paramount about being excluded from the bidding process on Titanic. These executives now say they would have paid far more than $30-million for the picture, suggesting that Paramount may have left as much as $30-million to $40-million more on the table.

NBC, on the other hand, acknowledges that it has ended up with a spectacular bargain: the biggest money-making picture of all time at a price far less than was commanded by several recent, less successful films, like Men in Black and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. But NBC executives say they succeeded by being aggressive and by having more faith in the movie than Fox itself did.

They also say that Paramount is being unfairly accused by some sour-grapes second-guessers, who are ignoring the flood of nasty, negative publicity that preceded the film's release and the still less-than-certain financial prospects Paramount faced when it agreed to sell Titanic to NBC.

For their part, Paramount executives continue to argue that they made a good deal, given the circumstances. One Paramount executive also said that he believed the bitterness about the sale was over and that Fox had apologized for questioning Paramount's approach to the deal.

But Fox executives said not only that they were unaware of any apologies heading toward Paramount but also that at some point Paramount's records may be subpoenaed to determine if NBC and Paramount attached any other bits of business to the Titanic deal.