NY Talk Shows Struggle for Guests

Tuesday, October 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Since Sept. 11, television talk shows based in New York are having a tough time filling their couches.

The starmaking machinery has been slowed by many celebrities' reluctance to travel, forcing many talk shows to cope with last-minute cancellations and invite guests who normally wouldn't get a second look.

Not that it's hurting too much: David Letterman's ratings are surging and he's drawn some of the best reviews of his career for gently guiding the nation back to comedy in a tragic and anxious time.

Two California-based TV entertainment chiefs said they're having trouble convincing stars to trek east for promotion, something the shows have noticed.

``I've certainly heard of a lot of cancellations,'' said Hillary Kun, chief booker on Comedy Central's ``The Daily Show.'' ``I know the other talk shows that are New York-based are having trouble. There's not as much selection as there normally would be.''

Drew Barrymore and Heather Graham both backed out of scheduled appearances on Letterman's ``Late Show.''

Barrymore was pressed into service as host of ``Saturday Night Live'' a week ahead of schedule when Ben Stiller cancelled, putting her a few floors away from the NBC News headquarters in Rockefeller Center the week an anthrax exposure was reported. She fled the building but was coaxed back for showtime.

Both Emeril Lagasse and Steve Harvey backed out of Conan O'Brien's ``Late Night'' the day anthrax was reported, leaving only musical guest Tenacious D. O'Brien hurriedly booked NBC's Dr. Bob Arnott.

``The Rosie O'Donnell Show,'' which, like ``Late Night,'' is taped in NBC's building, cancelled a full week of shows because of the anthrax scare. That prompted radio host Howard Stern to taunt O'Donnell for timidity when he appeared at the Madison Square Garden benefit concert.

Kelsey Grammer, television's Frasier Crane, came east earlier this month for appearances on O'Donnell's and O'Brien's shows and ``The Daily Show.''

``Obviously, it shifts your perspective, and it changes your understanding of life in America, but it doesn't mean you have to allow it to stop you,'' Grammer said. ``You can't let fear immobilize you. So I thought, `I gotta come.'''

``Frasier'' producer David Angell was killed in one of the hijacked planes on Sept. 11.

With fewer stars willing to travel, shows by necessity have invited more news personalities or New York-based celebrities. Fortunately for them, that fits right into the big story of the moment.

Letterman's most memorable guests recently have been CBS News anchor Dan Rather and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He's also had Walter Cronkite, ``60 Minutes'' reporter Steve Kroft, New York Times reporter Judith Miller, city Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen and historian Stephen Ambrose as guests.

Letterman's average viewership on CBS for the five weeks after the attacks was up 37 percent, to 4.8 million, compared to the five weeks before, according to Nielsen Media Research. NBC competitor Jay Leno's ratings are up 15 percent to 6.3 million.

Rather than seeing a windfall of guests, the California-based Leno has also had some booking difficulties, a spokeswoman said.

ABC News spokesman Todd Polkes used to hear occasionally from talk shows wanting to book anchors like Peter Jennings or Diane Sawyer. Now, bookers are calling constantly _ and he's placing lesser-known correspondents like John Miller and Don Dahler on the shows.

``We're booking a lot of people we wouldn't normally book,'' said Kun, citing Newsweek reporter Fareed Zakaria and former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as examples.

New York-based celebrities _ the ``Saturday Night Live'' cast, director Spike Lee, ``Ed'' star Tom Cavanaugh, for instance _ have also filled the breach.

Spokeswomen from O'Donnell's show and ``Live with Regis and Kelly'' wouldn't make executives available, but insisted their shows haven't been adversely affected.

Gradually, Kun said, the phones are ringing more.

``A lot of people are overcoming their fear,'' she said. ``There are definitely more celebrities coming in. Not as many as normal, but a lot more than there were two weeks ago.''