News Column

A legend, a Queen and a 'Skinny Girl' give talk shows a try

August 29, 2013


ST. LOUIS _ Every year, new hosts enter the talk show game with the highest of hopes. And every year, most of those fail. The latest victims of viewer uninterest: Jeff Probst, who didn't turn out to be a daytime survivor, and Ricki Lake, whose comeback attempt pooped out.

That won't keep others from trying. This fall, a talk legend, an Oscar nominee and a former "Real Housewife" all give the genre their best shot. Here, during panels and set visits with TV critics last month in Los Angeles, they talk about their hopes for their shows and what viewers should expect.

_"Arsenio," beginning Sept. 9

"I was actually down at the courthouse today," Arsenio Hall jokes. "I'm trying to change my name to Jimmy."

Hall will find himself competing with ABC's Jimmy Kimmel and NBC's incoming "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon when he returns to late night with a show with a familiar title: "Arsenio."

Clearly, the field _ including CBS' David Letterman and NBC's exiting Jay Leno, plus Conan O'Brien on TBS and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central _ is a lot more crowded than it was when he last whooped it up after hours.

That was 1994. "There's a lot of competition," Hall acknowledges. "Obviously, back in the day, I was trying to take anything that was left over on (Johnny) Carson's plate."

At the time, only NBC had its own late-night show. The original "Arsenio Hall Show," in syndication from 1988-94, aired on stations affiliated with ABC, CBS and Fox and was a big deal, until suddenly it wasn't. (The debut of "Late Show With David Letterman" on CBS in the fall of 1993 cost Hall many of his stations.)

He's back, again in syndication, but this time he has to grab viewers not just from network TV but also from hundreds of cable channels, plus whatever is on the DVR and streaming online.

"It's a huge challenge this time to bring people to the television," Hall says. "But I know that everybody doesn't have a (preferred) late night host. One of the biggest challenges for all of us as late night hosts is to get people to even make an appointment to watch TV" and not Google the highlights the next day. "The challenges are gigantic now."


No matter how good your show is, "statistics say that your biggest fans, the people who come up to you in the mall and say, 'I watch you every night, man,' that's not true. Your biggest fan doesn't watch you every night. You hope for three nights. ... Sometimes you'll get one night. But you hope you do a good, funny show and you assert a unique personality that's not there, so that you can just be in the game. I'm trying to be in the game."

Neal Kendall, Hall's executive producer, calls this "a golden age of late night TV" and says "everybody who is doing a show right now has carved out a niche." So what does Hall have?

"He's different," Kendall says. "That's the best answer to how our show will be different _ he is just unique and different."

Plus, says executive producer John Ferriter, "There are 290 million Americans who don't watch late night. So there are people out there" for the picking.


People who tune in will see "kind of the same Arsenio you know," Hall says. "Less hair, less shoulder pads," but dealing with "this culture of music, comedy, pop and hop, talking to ... a whole generation of new talent" _ not Alan Thicke but Robin Thicke.

"At the end of the day," Hall says, "I'm a standup comic. I go out there and I try to get laughs, and whoever comes, you're happy." He won't do a "young" joke "just because I'm looking for a young audience. I just have to be funny in the way that I do it, and you hope that people see you and laugh."

_"Queen Latifah," beginning Sept. 16


Queen Latifah _ the rapper, singer, Oscar-nominated actress (for "Chicago") and businesswoman _ didn't set out to create a late-night show. In most places, her new entry airs in daytime, but in the crowded St. Louis market, she lands in the way-way-back slot after "Craig Ferguson."


The structure of her show won't be all that different for late night, featuring celebrity interviews, music and location bits. But it's likely to have the cozier, more female-centric tone of, say, an "Ellen" or "Oprah," with "uplifting storytelling" and plenty of heart.

Latifah (friends call her by her real name, Dana Owens, or "La," or "Tifa," or "Queen," and she answers to all) promises something for everyone.

"The one thing that defines my career is variety," she says. "I've done so many things, and thankfully the audience has allowed me to take this journey. ... This is an obvious next step in my career. I get to have fun. I get to entertain. I get to bring all the amazing stories from people who have inspired me throughout the years, the people who do great things every day that maybe you don't know about, but should be celebrated as much as the celebrities who come on this show."

She'll be adventurous, she promised, and a clip shows her hang gliding.

"I'm going to push it as far as I possibly can, because I think the reason we are all sitting here today is that we are all women who pushed through our fears," she says. (Her friend Jada Pinkett Smith and Corin Nelson are both executive producers, along with Latifah.) "We like the next challenge. It helps us remember who we are or shows us who we can become."

Is she aiming for Oprah Winfrey territory? She's not quite that bold.

"People have asked me, 'Do you want to be the next Oprah?' There is no such thing. Oprah is Oprah, and she's still being Oprah in case anyone hadn't noticed. Obviously there are great things she accomplished, and I'd love to be able to accomplish some of those things, but I think what I bring to television is me. I'm Queen Latifah. I've had a different life story and a different path that I've traveled."

One thing she'll emulate, though, is Winfrey's ability to "take people on a journey with her." She's hoping, Latifah says, "that we can, as we get to know our audience, take them on a journey with us (and) we'll grow together."


Smith believes Latifah will appeal to any audience that sees her show.

"When we did the research on her, she is across the board _ from 3 to 80, women, men, kids _ she is extremely likable. ... I couldn't think of anyone else that could win in this space besides Latifah."


_"Bethenny," beginning Sept. 9

Bethenny Frankel wants to assure you that rumors about her being difficult are untrue.

"The honest truth is, I'm nice to everybody," Frankel says when asked about rumors of behind-the-scenes strife at her upcoming talk show. "We have a lot of fun, and we're definitely respectful, but it isn't a party. I mean, actually, it is sometimes a party."

Frankel is a variety show in herself. A former member of the "Real Housewives of New York," veteran of the Martha Stewart edition of "The Apprentice," inventor of Skinnygirl Cocktails and self-help author, she starred in her own Bravo reality show, getting married and giving birth to her daughter on a series with her name in the title.

Next up is a daytime talk show. (That and a divorce, which is ongoing.) "Bethenny" got a test run last June, and it was successful enough to go national in 98 percent of the country this fall.

The new version of the show will be essentially the same, Frankel says.

"I want it still to be organically me, and true to me. But there are some things I thought didn't work."

For example? "We came out of the gate and there was a lot of sex. There will be sex on the show, because I think it's something that women are going through, and whether they're having it or not having it. But there's so much more to mention."


Women are trying start businesses, deal with working-mom guilt, "balance their lives, get a good night's sleep, look good, be there for their husbands, or meet a guy, just keep it together," she says. The show is "going to have its shallow moments ... but it is definitely going to have a lot of depth."


Frankel can be a polarizing figure, but fans are devoted to her, as crowded public events show.

"I found out throughout this journey that women just feel they can tell me anything," she says. "I'm pretty open, and I reveal a lot about myself. I've gone through a lot of different things, and I am going through a lot of things right now, and I'm pretty honest about what those things are."


She calls the show "kind of a safe place. It's sort of like a girls' night out meets group therapy. And it's not really just about me, it's about us. Through my whole career it's been more about me, and I'd rather this be just a conversation."


Gail Pennington:


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