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H-e-e-e-e-r-e's Rosie

We know what you're thinking: Does the world really need another talk show? O'Donnell definitely thinks so--and she is convinced the way to go is by taking (gasp) the high road.

June 09, 1996|Robert Strauss | Robert Strauss is a regular contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — It's a blue kind of day in the offices of "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." Most of the blues are just fine.

Executive producer Daniel Kellison wears a blue Oxford shirt and blue jeans, setting the tone for his three dozen minions, about 80% of them women, who favor the faded-jeans look as well. It is four weeks before the first broadcast of the weekday syndicated variety show, and most of the names in the many calendar-gridded charts around the Rockefeller Center office are marked in blue. Blue is the "unconfirmed guest" color. Interspersed are a few names in black marker.

"Black is confirmed," explained head booker Jeffry Culbreth. "But blue is OK right now. They don't know us just yet. They will. I'm not worried."

But what is blue, blue and more blue--which is not so good--is the first try at a set for the show. This set, which no one who tunes in to the first "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" Monday (to be seen in the Los Angeles area at 3 p.m. on KNBC-TV Channel 4) will ever see, was just plain, well, too blue.

"It's a daytime show and you can't make it look like nighttime," said director Bob McKinnon, talking about the blue audience chairs, blue host chair, blue drop curtains, blue carpets and blue floor tiles on that first set. "Blue goes much darker on camera than it does to the eye. It's a technical thing that happens. . . . Anyhow, it won't be that blue. The floor won't be that color. The intensity won't be that blue. If we do, it will have a psychological effect on people watching in the daytime."

"The Rosie O'Donnell Show"--all of it, not just its set--was carefully designed not to make anyone blue. No new daytime talk show wants to alienate its potential audience. There are only so many viewers to go around with the glut of channels spewing forth from your cable box. While it will be one of a fusillade of syndicated shows you will be implored to watch this year to replace departed ones such as those hosted by Phil Donahue and Danny Bonaduce, "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" has been predicted by some experts to have the best shot at success.

As it builds toward its Monday premiere, its producers have allowed periodic peeks at how a show of this sort goes from conception to your screen.

*

By last winter, it seemed like every last officeholder or pundit with a spare opinion had come down against filth and bad taste on what is known in the syndicated TV trade as "the talk genre." The permutations of personal travesties from "Stripper Cheerleaders" to "My Mother Is a Transvestite Hooker" became fodder for do-good spokespeople wanting to clean up the daytime airwaves. The public finally seemed somewhat aghast as well, as ratings even for long-standing popular players such as Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera dropped and some hosts promised to clean up their video acts.

Into this breach rode Rosie O'Donnell, or, more properly, her 1-year-old adopted son, Parker. In the early '90s, O'Donnell had transferred her tough-but-lovable stand-up act into a set of well-received movie notices ("A League of Their Own," "Sleepless in Seattle") and a host of talk-show appearances. But as a 34-year-old single mom, she wanted more of Parker and less of the road.

"I did one movie since [Parker] arrived ['Harriet the Spy,' opening July 3] and, during those 23 days I was in Toronto, I saw him an average of 40 minutes a day," she said, perched in her eighth-floor office overlooking Rockefeller Center, two days before her first of five practice shows. Parker is sleeping behind a door that reads "PARKER," each letter a clown in various bright plaids. "That's not the kind of parent I want to be. I want to be hands-on and put him to bed at night, be there when he takes his first step, goes to kindergarten, the whole thing."

She guest-hosted for Kathie Lee Gifford on "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee" one week and was hooked. If she could sell someone on the idea of doing her own chat-'em-up show, she could stay in New York, close to her family's Long Island home. Not only that, she could have relative banker's hours. In by 8. Out by 1. Do a little writing at home. Cuddle with Parker.

Enter Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures Productions, a division of Warner Bros., who was on the lookout for possible daytime syndicated hits. The studio distributes "Jenny Jones," one of the more successful if controversial so-called "trash talk" shows, and "Extra," a flashy entertainment news half-hour.

"She could have done a sitcom in New York," Paratore said. "She could have done a late-night talk show too. But she said, 'I want to do a daytime talk show.' And we wanted to be a part of it."

By Thanksgiving, O'Donnell and Warner had a deal. Warner was happy with having a name to promote. O'Donnell was satisfied that Warner had money and clout to get her vision off the ground.

That vision was like one of those sequences on a TV sitcom where a filmy haze comes up and you are transported to the past--in this case, to the O'Donnell household in the early 1970s:

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