Talent bookers face a challenge

Strike or no strike, it’s business as unusual for latenight TV’s talent bookers.

As scribes pound the picket line and talkshow sets remain dark, nonwriting staffers have been hunting for ways to pass the day (several at “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” have taken to growing “strike beards”).

But the production halt hasn’t provided much of a break for workers charged with recruiting gabfest guests.

That’s because guests are usually confirmed weeks in advance, and the talkshows have to remain at the ready. No one knows if and when the strike may be settled, WGA waivers may be granted or shows may decide to resume production sans scribes — a remote possibility, although talkshow producers have informally chatted about when or if it would be appropriate for their shows to return (Daily Variety, Nov. 16).

(In a controversial move, one latenight talker, NBC’s “Last Call With Carson Daly,” is going back into production next week.)

“We never stopped booking,” said one latenight show staffer. “We had to keep going. If we’re sent word that we’re back on the air, we have to have guests lined up and a framework for the week, or else you come back on the air and it’s a problem.”

Booking guests is always a cutthroat game, and attracting A-list talent isn’t easy even for the top-rated shows and even in the best of times. (The customs that determine who appears on which show when — and the resulting fallout from other shows — could fill a tome.) Imagine trying to recruit celebs when your show isn’t even on the air — and there’s no guarantee the episode they’re slated to appear will actually happen.

In some cases, publicists say they are offended by attempts to book their clients given the strike. Others are more willing to play ball, even though they know it’s unlikely the show will actually head back to the air anytime soon.

“What you have are these bizarre conversations going on continually between bookers and publicists,” one show staffer said. “Multiple scenarios are then played out. If we do a show on one date, is your client available? And if they are, would they cross a picket line? Some publicists are advising their clients that it would be career suicide to do so.”

Every show handles its bookings differently; according to one insider, the 11:30 p.m. shows — “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Show With David Letterman” — generally confirm talent a month or two in advance (usually tied to a movie opening or record release), meaning they’re just now in the market for a new round of guests.

The later shows hosted by Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson book closer to airdate, meaning they’ve already experienced a few weeks of having to go through the motion of booking guests, then cancel. On one show, an actress was booked, then canceled, then booked again, then canceled again.

“Publicists are starting to get used to this conversation,” a staffer said.

At the start of the strike, NBC’s latenight gabbers kept their bookings as scheduled until a day or two before air, when they were canceled. This week, Peacock cleared “The Tonight Show” slate early and scheduled a week of older episodes, thematically geared to the first time major Hollywood stars sat down with Leno.

Over at CBS, net keeps guests booked until a week before they’re scheduled to appear; they’re told by Wednesday that the following week’s episodes won’t be taped.

At this point, the amount of booking varies from show to show. One insider said “The Tonight Show” has stopped booking celebs altogether but is still on the lookout for human-interest guests — average people with unusual skills or stories to tell.

Then there’s the question of what might happen down the road if staffers are ultimately laid off. The Eye’s latenight employees will continue to be paid through the end of the year, but the Peacock’s staffers are currently slated to be paid only through the end of this week.

“Now that the (strike) negotiations are in progress and blacked out, most shows are moving to a ‘we’ll deal with this one day at a time’ basis,” one latenight staffer said.

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