Kimmel and the live wire

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Michele Greppi

It has paid off in big yuks and bucks for "Saturday Night Live" for 28 years. It has kept Regis Philbin on his toes across four decades. It has added a hot-off-the-press perspective to ABC's "The View" in daytime since 1997.

But going live didn't save "The Late Show With Joan Rivers" from being cancelled six short and turbulent months after it ushered in the rowdy Fox Broadcasting era in 1986. It didn't keep "The Wilton North Report," which succeeded "Joan Rivers," on Fox stations for more than four weeks. It didn't stop the curtain from coming down on Tom Snyder in 1999 after four seasons of "The Late Late Show."

So will broadcasting live from Los Angeles at 12:05 a.m. (ET) each weeknight help Jimmy Kimmel live long and prosper on ABC's late-night lineup?

The network thinks so. ABC Entertainment Group Chairman Lloyd Braun may have more riding on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," which debuts after the Super Bowl, Sunday, Jan. 26, than Mr. Kimmel himself. The choice of Mr. Kimmel as host and the decision to broadcast live were Mr. Braun's. The decision came in the wake of ABC's failed attempt to steal David Letterman from CBS.

Mr. Kimmel, 35, is used to living on the edge. He has pushed the testosterone-filled envelope with "The Man Show" on Comedy Central and with his taunts of the big bad jocks on "Fox NFL Sunday." Until he landed at Los Angeles' KROQ-FM in the '90s he was used to getting fired.

He still talks like a man always expecting the ax to fall, but some of that could be calculated to lower expectations about the show on the parts of Mr. Kimmel and co-executive producer Daniel Kellison, who survived the live launch of "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" but soon after left that daytime show, which helped make live TV hot again.

"Trust me, I'll get the boot," Mr. Kimmel told an amused Diane Sawyer during a stop at "Good Morning America."

While the show is live, there is a five-second delay, which will give the network a brief chance to react. Mr. Kimmel and Mr. Kellison both consider the live aspect an important part of the unscripted show. Mr. Kimmel will not do a traditional monologue and will have guest hosts each week. Most of his humor comes from observing what happens around him. "The nature of the show's being live every night is that we want to be able to react to things that happen," Mr. Kimmel said.

The first guest host will be rapper-actor Snoop Dogg. Mr. Kellison said the only other guests booked as of last week were Bernie Mac and Don King, admitting the show has had problems getting big names. It is not only that the stars are unsure of what the show will be like, but the idea of being live itself can be scary for often insecure actors, especially when the host is also unpredictable. Guests may balk at actually appearing live later at night and being subject to delays when "Nightline" goes long because of breaking news.

Adding to the unpredictable atmosphere is Mr. Kimmel's insistence that alcohol be served to the audience at Disney's El Capitan Entertainment Centre in Hollywood. At press time, wine and beer had been approved but Disney lawyers had not yet agreed to hard liquor. "The truth is most of the people like me are going to come drunk anyway," Kimmel quipped to TV critics last week.

Live TV veterans

"SNL" creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels has been doing TV's biggest live-wire act without a safety net longer than anyone on TV. "I spent six months worrying about the first show, and when it was over I had six days until the second show," said Mr. Michaels, who never ceases to get a laugh when he tells someone in the industry that an amazing number of civilians still ask him when "Saturday Night Live" tapes.

"Star Search" host Arsenio Hall has hammered home the message that his midseason CBS hit is live in many ways, such as giving the audience updated sports scores.

The combination of tempting technical fate while touching viewers' hearts and drawing them into a quest for the brass ring adds up to a hokey irresistibility with "Star Search." On the first night, one of the contestants junked the material that had been discussed with the producers and resorted to less-appropriate jokes. The gut decision cost the contestant the audience vote during the commercial break. "It was a complete twist," said Ghen Maynard, senior VP of alternative programming for CBS.

There's no way to predict whether Mr. Kimmel's goofball-without-a-net approach will hold the same appeal for viewers, but the live-and-loose format is likely to scare off some potential guests.

"Jimmy keeps saying he's got no guests," said Mr. Braun, who, despite a somewhat buttoned-down reputation, seems to be enjoying the general air of apprehension as launch approaches.

"Here's the dirty little secret," he whispered: "Things will go wrong, but that's going to make for better television, because Jimmy is good."

Affiliates initially huffed that the network presumed it could claim a half-hour of time to which it is not entitled to clear Mr. Kimmel's hour. By giving stations compensation or inventory bonuses in the second half-hour, ABC turned the situation around. At press time, "Kimmel" was cleared in markets representing some 85 percent of the country (the vast majority of the clearances in pattern), and ABC is confident it will hit 90 percent by launch.

Citadel Communications Chairman Phil Lombardo yanked "Politically Incorrect" off his three ABC affiliates until Bill Maher taped apologies to viewers in each of the Citadel markets, but he has cleared "Kimmel" without qualms about what could go wrong.

"I grew up in the era of live television. I think that live television is exciting, and I don't have any concerns that it will get out of line. I want more live television," said Mr. Lombardo.

"Live television is an exciting format and one that advertisers, for the most part, welcome being part of," said Tim Spengler, executive VP and director of national broadcast for Initiative Media North America. "I think most brands are looking for something a little gutsy." Still, he said, "I think probably going in [advertisers] have to make a decision on the proclivity of the talent to go out of bounds or cross the line in search of a joke."

Bruce McKay has just been named executive producer of King World's "Living It Up! With Ali & Jack," the strip that will originate live from New York next fall at the same time Mr. Philbin is launching into his trademark host chat segment a few blocks north in "Live's" Upper West Side studio.

Mr. McKay produced "The Late Show With Joan Rivers," which achieved buzz more because Ms. Rivers' career choice alienated her from late-night king Johnny Carson than because it was live.

"In the studio there was an unquestioned electricity," Mr. McKay said. However, he also said, "We put that show together so well that it really didn't make a difference if it was live or on tape."