Just weeks before season 12 of America's Got Talent begins production, longtime host Nick Cannon is vowing to leave the series because of the fallout from racially charged jokes he told during a recent Showtime stand-up special. But entertainment attorneys say the resolution to his dust-up with NBC will be much less attention-grabbing than the headlines suggest.
Cannon wrote a note to fans explaining that he wants to leave the show and his team told him NBC believed he was in breach of contract because he'd disparaged its brand in Stand Up, Don't Shoot.
During the special, which premiered Friday, Cannon warned the crowd they were going to see a different side of him. He poked fun at his freedom to use language that would "mess up the white money" if he used it in his AGT hosting gig. (Watch the clip here.) "America's got talent, but America's got n - as too," he said. The comedian also created new meanings for the acronym NBC, such as "N - a Be Careful."
NBC has declined to comment, including late Tuesday amid reports that the network might be holding the door open for Cannon to keep his job.
If Cannon really wants to quit, legal experts say NBC can't force him to perform on the show - even if he is still under contract. However, if Cannon signed a non-compete agreement, the network could keep him from taking a similar job elsewhere.
"Clearly they're not going to sue him," says entertainment attorney Richard Marks of The Point Media. "They'll need a replacement host, if he's really serious. I would think that they would try to do it quietly. It's all bad publicity."
Whether Cannon's jokes actually rise to the level of disparagement is up for debate - especially since they were made in the context of a comedy special. It may depend on how the term "disparagement" was defined in his contract, and experts say courts have been known to rely on the dictionary definition even though some might consider it too vague.
"On the one hand, it's not surprising that NBC might be offended given the juxtaposition of the 'n word' in the context of their brand - particularly given that AGT is considered a 'family show' and Nick is the host," says Kinsella Weitzman litigator Jeremiah Reynolds. "However, you have to consider Nick's behavior in the context of him previously being a stand-up comic when he was brought on to AGT."
Reynolds adds it's surprising that NBC would react negatively, as Cannon has described, because Howard Stern said and did far more controversial things during his time as a judge on the show. However, he says the resulting controversy is likely enough for Cannon and AGT to part ways. "He's going to be uncomfortable and they're going to be uncomfortable," says Reynolds. "So I think they'll work out some sort of deal where he leaves."
It wouldn't be out of the question for the network to fight to keep him - especially since production is imminent and the show's judges are all returning.
Whatever NBC relayed to Cannon's team was likely meant to only be a slap on the wrist, according to attorneys. The network also might not want to mess with a good thing: The show's eleventh-season finale in September scored 14.4 million viewers to produce the biggest final episode in six years. It also marked a 49 percent jump from the previous year, juiced up by the arrival of executive producer Simon Cowell as a judge when he replaced Stern.
"They probably never thought he would go public and resign," says Marks. "Why not bring it up? 'Nick, you can talk about lots of things in your stand-up, but we'd like you not to alienate a certain demographic from watching our show.' I don't think that they wanted to fire him."
But now that Cannon feels restrained, there may not be anything the network could do to convince him to stay. After all, when signing contracts that contain non-disparagement clauses, the talent waives his or her right to free speech in that context.
Greenberg Glusker dealmaker Alla Savranskaia says comedians are considered more high-risk than other talent - because their jobs require mocking people, places and things - and the non-disparagement clauses are becoming harsher. "It seems to me, personally, a little bit ridiculous," she says. "They're comedians. People should be able to take a joke."
She attributes the change, at least in part, to social media. Cannon has more than 5.2 million Twitter followers - and his post about quitting was shared by tens of thousands of fans across several social media platforms.
"Companies are becoming so much more fearful about their brands," says Savranskaia. "Entertainers have millions of followers and if they say something 'disparaging' on one of their social media accounts that statement would have such visibility."