NBC News didn't pay the Salahis for their exclusive Today appearance this morning. They didn't have to: According to rival bookers trying to land the Salahis, they already have a contract with Bravo preventing them from talking to anyone else.

As applicants to appear on Bravo's The Real Housewives of Washington, D.C., Tareq and Michaele Salahi had signed a contract with the network limiting their television appearances. And according to a booker at a rival network, an NBC staffer has admitted that Bravo prevented the Salahis from giving their initial exclusive interview to anyone other than NBC News, which is under the same NBC Universal corporate umbrella as Bravo.

"They had a Bravo contract before the state dinner," the NBCer said, according to our source. "Bravo just held them to it," comparing the situation to what the TLC network did with John and Kate Gosselin after that pair became front-page news.

Bravo's contract with Real Housewives of New Jersey participants has been posted online, and the relevant portion of that contract—which we'd imagine would be quite similar to what the Salahis signed—is here:

In addition to obligating participants to make themselves "reasonably available" to market the show, it prevents them from appearing on any "unscripted, reality-based programs" without Bravo's written consent. If the Salahis signed a contract like this, Bravo could have prevented them from giving their exclusive to anyone other than Today.

The Salahis had been scheduled to break their silence on CNN's Larry King Live last night, but the appearance was "rescheduled" without explanation. ABC News and CBS News were also pursuing the Salahis, and the Associated Press has reported that the couple was demanding "a payment in the mid-six figures range" in exchange for access.

It's an open secret that morning news shows will pay money to land interviews — they are just very clever about it, never cutting a check directly for an interview. The spurned rival saluted former Today honcho and present NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker's creativity in securing the biggest get of, well, the month so far.

Still, Lauer insisted this morning that NBC News hadn't paid the Salahis:

Matt Lauer: Based on some of the things that have been reported over the last 48 or 72 hours I feel the need to say this and ask this : are you appearing here today in any way because of any financial deal that you have made with this network? Are we paying you for this appearance in any way?

Michaele: No you're not.

Tareq: No, absolutely not.

Michaele: And at no time, Matt, have we ever even talked about doing that with anyone.

It depends on what "this network" means. Did they have a financial deal with NBC? No. Did they have one with Bravo? Absolutely.

"I'm OK losing," said a rival booker, "but to watch Matt Lauer say 'we didn't pay them'" when NBC News' corporate sister Bravo used its contract to force them to Today was too much. Not to mention that the Salahis will be paid, handsomely, when they are inevitably selected for the final cast of Real Housewives, which they almost certainly will be.

UPDATE: Cameron Blanchard, a Bravo spokeswoman, says "it's categorically false" that Bravo played a role in the booking: "Bravo was not involved at all." When we asked Blanchard whether Bravo had, as the Real Housewives of New Jersey agreement seems to indicate, a contractual right to determine which television programs the Salahis appear on, she said "we don't comment on the contents of contracts." Then, commenting on the contents of the contract, Blanchard added that "every contract is different, and to imply that the Salahis signed something like the Real Housewives on New Jersey contract is not accurate."

SECOND UPDATE: NBC News spokeswoman Lauren Kapp says, "Bravo was not involved. This was a separate situation. While I can't speak for the Salahis, the fact that they chose to appear on the number one morning news show should not seem odd." Asked if Bravo had a contractual right to sign off on the Salahis' television appearances, she said, "You would have to ask Bravo about the contract." When we asked Kapp why the Salahis would initially decide to appear on CNN's Larry King Live instead of the "number one morning news show," she said, "They chose to, and then they changed their minds, and you'd have to ask them why they did."