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Who paid for 'Tonight Show' Super Bowl broadcast from Minnesota? Taxpayers did.

Jimmy Fallon, host of "The Tonight Show." Katherine Frey / Washington Post

MINNEAPOLIS — Jimmy Fallon embraced his surroundings when he brought his "Tonight Show" to Minneapolis last year: he ate hotdish cooked by a suburban family, impersonated native-son music icon Bob Dylan and waved mittens at his exuberant audience while flattering them.

"Well, it's official. You heard it here first. We are moving the show to Minneapolis," Fallon joked in his opening monologue. "That's right, hold on to your tater tots."

It was a publicity score for the state the night the Super Bowl was played a few blocks away. But the local attention wasn't free.

"The Tonight Show" told the state it spent more than $3 million to take the show on the road, including Fallon's six-figure paycheck for the episode. But records indicate it also got nearly $267,000 back through a Minnesota government rebate program amid questions over its eligibility.

Melodie Bahan is executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, a nonprofit entity that needs state signoff to issue rebate checks. She said the show was among the largest budget projects in her couple of years at the helm.

"Anytime that a show comes here that's going to hire more than 100 people — local people — and pay them really good wages, that's a victory," Bahan said.

Minnesota spends millions of taxpayer dollars through the state's Snowbate program. It's aimed at luring productions and fostering local industry talent.

But this wasn't an ordinary project. There was consternation within the film board — and later in the top ranks of a state agency — about providing the subsidy. There was debate about whether Fallon would have made the trek regardless, given that NBC had the coveted Super Bowl rights that year.

Talk vs. variety

At first blush, film board staff told Fallon's crew their "talk show" wouldn't qualify under a plainly worded section of Minnesota law. But that changed after the highly rated late-night program was ultimately classified as a "variety show" that would fit the confines of state law.

And with that, Bahan said, there was no legal footing to hold available money back.

"Once we determined it was a variety show and not a talk show, then, no, we would have had no reason to reject the application," Bahan said in a recent interview.

Officials arrived at that conclusion after considerable back-and-forth, according to emails and other documents obtained through a public records request.

The film board first got word that "The Tonight Show" would come to Minneapolis in November of 2017. A message went back to the show's producers that talk shows are excluded from rebates.

Within hours, there was a move afoot to alter that determination. The NBC Universal team got on the phone with Bahan, who decided to pull in advice from the volunteer Snowbate Operations Committee. The advisory panel was told to weigh in within 24 hours. That touched off a flurry of opinions.

"They are coming here anyway because of the event, no further incentive needed," wrote Michelle Caron, a longtime industry consultant. She questioned whether the project would clear an audit and concluded, "the statute is clear and we can't allow this without legislative change."

$162,000 paycheck

Bahan said she consulted with and received signoff from an official at the Department of Employment and Economic Development and some legislators before going to her appointed board for approval.

The Republicans who at the time chaired legislative committees that control the Snowbate budget — Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington and Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona — both told MPR News they don't recall being approached.

"I'm pretty certain I would have remembered," Miller said.

Then-Rep. Kelly Fenton, a Woodbury Republican who sponsored film board incentives legislation, said board officials told her "The Tonight Show" was coming but didn't indicate that state money was attached.

"I don't remember ever being asked: 'Do you approve of this?' Because those aren't the decisions legislators make," Fenton said.

A DEED spokesperson said there were internal discussions about the show's eligibility, but a records request specific to that agency turned up little documentation.

Bahan urged the executive committee of her board to approve the subsidy despite acknowledging the advisory committee was leaning toward rejecting certification. Bahan wrote in an email that while "'The Tonight Show' is not part of the long game, an ongoing relationship with NBC/Comcast is."

A week before Christmas 2017, NBC learned the show set for the following February was certified.

As part of the agreement, only certain expenses were eligible for the 25% rebate. Documents show NBC had more than $1 million in charges that qualified, resulting in the $266,834.50 check delivered last July. That's more than half of what the Legislature allocated to the Snowbate program in that fiscal year.

The show had to submit detailed records to back up its spending.

Included in the list of expenses was the $162,000 that NBC Universal paid Fallon for his work on the Super Bowl Sunday program. Lodging for the show's staff made up $380,000 of its costs, more than $320,000 went for in-state production personnel and $275,000 was paid to rent the Orpheum Theatre for several days.

Also in the mix were lots of food tabs, including a $139.50 dinner for musician Justin Timberlake and $45 for vitamin water for the pop star, who also performed during the Super Bowl's halftime show. (An alcohol tab attributed to Timberlake was far higher, but booze isn't eligible for reimbursement.)

This story originally appeared at: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/07/11/taxpayers-helped-fund-tonight-show-super-bowl-broadcast-minnesota

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