Late-night booking wars heat up

Top talent choosing appearances carefully

Who will Jennifer do?

It's a question that might have big implications for the late-night TV landscape. With the debut of NBC's "The Jay Leno Show" a month away, the late-night wars are coming to a fresh boil. As one of the first A-list stars to have a movie opening after the Sept. 14 bow of "Leno," Jennifer Aniston's choice of couch to promote her romantic comedy "Love Happens" might foretell a shift in the utra-competitive world of talk-show booking.

Or at least "Leno" producers hope so. During the past two weeks, they quietly have hosted teams from the town's top PR firms for a tour of the new studio and a presentation touting promo opportunities for their clients. While the 10 p.m. show technically won't compete with traditional late-night offerings and will feature a slightly different format, it is being treated as such for the purpose of booking top guests.

"The message was made clear: 'We'd like you to do our show first,' " says a top PR rep who attended a "Leno" pitch session but did not want to be named because she books clients on all the shows.

In addition to private pitches, a party is planned for Wednesday night at the Sunset Tower in West Hollywood to build industry buzz.

For years, the late-night booking hierarchy was relatively settled. With common exceptions, NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" battled for A-list guests for their 11:30 shows. ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" had success with talent catering to a younger, male-skewing audience, and 12:30 hosts Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson were more flexible with invites.

Now, with O'Brien inheriting "Tonight" and Jimmy Fallon installed at "Late Night," the addition of "Leno" has opened a new front in the booking wars.

"I've never seen it like this," says a late-night insider of the jockeying to secure guests. "Now people are being much more strategic, and they are planning it out far more in advance."

NBC is in a particularly interesting position, competing not only with CBS and ABC -- and, to a lesser extent, with cable outlets like Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart -- but also between its own O'Brien and Leno shows.

Although the personal relationship between the current and former "Tonight" hosts is said to be friendly, Leno acknowledged the competition last week at the Television Critics Assn.'s summer press tour.

"Will we fight like cats and dogs to get the guest? Yes," Leno said. "But that doesn't mean you don't like each other. It's a game."

A game with high stakes: Viewers often tune in to talkers based on the tease announcing guests. One great guest, Hugh Grant in 1995, turned around Leno's fortunes at "Tonight" and propelled him to the late-night ratings lead.

With O'Brien and Leno attempting to establish themselves in new roles, scoring top talent is considered crucial. That's why the producing teams on both "Leno" and "Tonight" are acting aggressively.

NBC declined interview requests, but insiders underplay a potential booking rivalry, pointing to the longtime close relationship between "Tonight" executive producer Jeff Ross and "Leno" executive producer Debbie Vickers. The two coordinated guest bookings for years when their hosts were on "Late Night" and "Tonight," respectively.

They still are expected to keep each other apprised of plans and offer a booked guest to the other show at a later date if the guest's schedule permits. But those would be dreaded calls, leaving the fellow Peacock talker with the prospect of being second (or third, if the guest also opts to do CBS' "Late Show" or another show).

Although "Leno" is considered an untested wild card, several publicists say they walked away from the presentation excited about the show, especially the chance for clients to reach a 10 p.m. audience with a project pitch.

"Even if Leno disappoints in the ratings, he will still probably double the audience of other hosts," one PR rep says. "It's the primetime demo, the late-night demo and even the morning demo all rolled into one. That's pretty attractive."

Still, stars decide which shows to do based on many factors, including their relationship with the host, the audience demographic and which venue fits their schedule. The Los Angeles-based "Leno" is likely to affect "Tonight," "Kimmel" and Ferguson's "Late Late Show" more than New York-based Letterman and Fallon. "But celebrities are still going to go where they feel most comfortable," a network insider says. "It's not just about ratings."

Rival network sources believe that Leno might have trouble booking stars of non-NBC shows because he competes with the primetime offerings on those networks, but talent reps suggest the format of "Leno" might help him land guests. A-list interviews could be spread across two seven-minute segments, producers have told flacks, and talent will be incorporated into comedy bits.

That includes a planned "10 Questions"-type segment and the advertiser-friendly "Green Car Challenge," where celebrities will race alternative-fuel vehicles around a track NBC has built for the show. These smaller segments could provide a venue for an A-lister who already has done "Late Show" or "Tonight" to appear on "Leno" without duplicating an interview.

"Nobody knows how it's going to shake out," another publicist says of "Leno." "They are saying they won't necessarily forbid someone from doing Conan and then Jay, but it would probably be in one of the smaller positions."

The week of Sept. 14 will be instructive.

Leno has said his first show will include a performance by Jay-Z with Rihanna and Kanye West, and NBC on Friday confirmed that that show will feature Jerry Seinfeld. Charlize Theron will appear on "Tonight" on Sept. 14, and that week provides an unusually high number of actors promoting projects. In addition to Aniston pitching "Happens," which is being released by NBC sister Universal Pictures, Matt Damon has "The Informant!" opening that Friday and has agreed to do a "Kimmel" comedy bit. Megan Fox will be shilling for "Jennifer's Body," and the voice cast of the animated "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" includes Andy Samberg and Bill Hader of NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

Insiders say that when the talent community sees what "Leno" is and who is watching it, the uncertainty in the booking world will be resolved.

"Once the Leno show gets up and running, then the rules will get made," another publicist says. "Will Conan follow Jay with some of our big clients? The answer is, 'We'll see.' "