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Booking talkshows spawns rigid rules

Actors crowd couches to tout work

The beleaguered group of people who book talent for TV talkshows have certain essential rules. And with the onset of awards season, the job becomes even more stressful.

Here, then, is a handy Survival Guide for the Talent Booker:

Rule 1: There is a firm sequence.

An appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” must come before “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” or “Live With Regis & Kelly.” “The View” must follow “Regis” by two days.

Whoever guest-hosts “Saturday Night Live” must also do “Conan,” because both are Lorne Michaels productions.

That’s for New York shows. The protocol for the L.A. circuit is just as rigid.

“Depending on what type of movie you have, the normal promotion path begins in October. Do the junket in L.A., the premiere in L.A., do ‘Leno,’ pretape an L.A. show like ‘Kimmel’ or ‘Ellen,’ then go to New York (and do that circuit),” explains Joanna Jordan, founder and president of Central Talent Booking, which procures talent for a number of celeb destinations including ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and MTV’s “Punk’d.”

Popular on Variety

One show trumps all others, though.

“If Oprah wants you, you can’t be seen anywhere before the ‘Oprah’ appearance airs,” adds Jordan. So a star’s first stop, whether they like it or not, will be King World Studios in Chicago, no exceptions.

For PR maven Stan Rosenfield, whose clients include recent Oscar winners Helen Mirren and George Clooney, it all hinges on the gentlemen’s agreement struck between publicist and booker.

“There’s nothing in ink for what we do,” he says. “There’s nothing in writing, nothing contractual. It’s all a matter of trust. If you do ‘Kimmel’ on Thursday, you can’t do ‘(Craig) Ferguson’ on Wednesday night. It’s a no-no.”

Rule 2: There are nuances.

One must abide by the whims of stars. Julia Roberts prefers “Letterman,” while Russell Crowe is more comfortable chatting with Jay Leno. Sean Penn is a Charlie Rose kind of guy.

And there are the needs of the host. Letterman, for example, doesn’t love to interview movie stars, but he practically nods off when an actor tries to do a hard sell on the film.

Rule 3: Know thy circuits.

The chatshows reach the masses. But there are other circuits that target awards voters. AMC’s “Shoot-Out” (hosted by Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart and Peter Guber) is watched by a lot of industry folks, and hence Academy and guild voters. There is also a circuit for Q&As. In the last few years, screening series offer a film that is a kudos possibility, followed by Q&A sessions with filmmakers. Last week, “The Darjeeling Limited” helmer Wes Anderson and stars Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman made the rounds, doing four sessions in one day.

Rule 4: Be aware of earlier schedules.

Ever since the Oscars moved from March into the February TV sweeps period, Operation Gabfest now begins in late September after the Toronto Film Festival.

“You used to do all of your promotion to win an Oscar in January, but it’s really in November and December now,” says Jordan, who is considered one of the industry’s premier bookers, having slotted for “Late Show With David Letterman” from 1999-2005.

Movie topliners are known as “first-outs” in booker parlance because they must be the show’s first guest. But with the accelerated awards season, film actors have to compete with another group of first-outs: stars of fall TV shows.

“For TV stars, (the busy time is) at the beginning of the premiere season,” Jordan says. “Kate Walsh — the hot It girl of the new TV season — is doing ‘Letterman.’ Then she does ‘GMA’ and ‘Regis.’ Then she’ll hold and not do ‘Leno’ until sweeps. That’s pretty classic.”

And, of course, Walsh would do ABC’s “Good Morning America” before NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” because she’s starring in an ABC show, and the networks’ morning shows always give hefty plugs to the home team.

TV stars abound on the talkshow circuit because their networks won’t pay for talent to fly to New York unless they appear on three of the major shows.

Since the early days of the talkshow, bookers — who are traditionally women — have walked a tightrope keeping their respective shows stocked with recognizable names and never scheduling two equally prominent stars on the same day. That could jeopardize the relationship not only with the bigger-name guest but the entire client roster of that guest’s publicist.

Last year, PMK’s Stephen Huvane boycotted NBC’s “Today” after it aired an unverified anecdote about alleged pending nuptials for client Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. Huvane was so incensed he threatened to withhold hisstable of clients, which includes Gwyneth Paltrow and Julianne Moore, from the morning program.

But the industry’s top bookers – which also include Kelly Burkhard at “Regis,” Paula Davis at “Conan” and Tracie Fiss at “Leno” – usually weather such temporary embargos well based on the necessicity of these shows to help fuel a successful campaign.

Rule 5: Know the competition

While bookers have always faced challenges in securing top-tier talent, there are now an endless number of outlets — including magazines, newspapers and online sites — competing for the limited number of stops an Angelina Jolie or Leonardo DiCaprio is willing to make during an awards campaign.

“Before, if there was something for a (star) to promote, there was the choice of maybe one morning show, one latenight show, and maybe they would do ‘Phil Donahue’ or ‘Oprah,’ ” says Claudio Cagan, a senior segment producer at E! and veteran booker who landed presidential hopeful Bill Clinton on “The Arsenio Hall Show” for what became his famous saxophone-playing appearance.

“Now there are three morning shows, local morning shows, and some of those local morning shows air nationally. That gives the publicist and the talent even more choices of things they don’t want to do,” she says.

Add to that the growing importance of Internet vehicles like “The 9” on Yahoo!, for which Jordan also books, and satellite radio outlets.

Most stars are contractually obligated to make a small number of appearances. Typically, the actor must do the premiere, the junket and one latenight show and one morning show of their choice. If they’re so inclined, the star can then promote the project to the growing number of audiences and demos on everything from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” to ESPN 2’s “Cold Pizza.”

The proliferation of choices coupled with the number of interviews the talent will grant creates fierce competition among bookers.

Adds Rosenfield, “It’s one of the worst jobs an individual can have because they are constantly hearing, ‘Why are they getting this person, and we didn’t?’ “

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