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Jimmy Kimmel, the Host With a Host of Questions

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, July 17, 2008

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 16

"I can't believe that they're going to let this guy go at the top of his game!" ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson told The Reporters Who Cover Television and critics in re NBC late-night host Jay Leno, who is contractually obligated to exit "The Tonight Show" next year.

Two days earlier on his show, Leno had held up a newspaper's Sunday TV magazine with a cover photo of himself and the headline "Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno on ABC" and cracked, "It's like a headline from the future!"

Kicking off ABC's first day at the Thank God We're Still Working Summer TV Press Tour 2008, McPherson cleverly seized control of the inevitable questions about his network's interest in Leno by planting its current late-night host Jimmy Kimmel in the press gaggle as a reporter for the Sarasota Star-Herald Tribune:

Kimmel: "There are rumors that ABC is actively courting Jay Leno for 11:30. Is there any truth to those rumors?"

McPherson: "I don't really feel comfortable answering that in this forum."

Kimmel: "If anything were, God forbid, to happen, would that mean -- would Ted Koppel get fired, or how would that work?" He was, of course, referring to the ex-anchor of ABC newsmag "Nightline," which now serves as the lead-in for Kimmel's 12:05 a.m. talker.

McPherson: "Yeah. It would be doomsday for Ted."

Given TRWCT's general hysteria over late-night TV developments, it was admittedly a risky joke -- kind of like that New Yorker cover picturing Barack Obama in Muslim garb giving a "terrorist fist bump" to his machine-gun-toting wife. But, in truth, the longtime "Nightline" host exited the show in 2005 and now works for Discovery; he's also a contributor for BBC America's news operation.

ABC was pilloried in the media in 2002 when TRWCT got wind of ABC-parent Disney's effort to snag CBS late-night host David Letterman for the "Nightline" time slot.

Six years later, minus Koppel and with a new format, "Nightline" is less revered, making a late-night scheduling shuffle much less controversial for ABC.

Kimmel: "If you were even to talk to Jay Leno, wouldn't that be, like, contract tampering? Wouldn't that be illegal? Couldn't you go to jail for that?"

McPherson: "It's possible."

Kimmel: "How do you keep your hair so nice? . . . Are you at all afraid that if you do replace Jimmy Kimmel he might do something crazy to you or your car?"

McPherson: "Yes, actually, very afraid."

Kimmel: "I'll be out in the parking lot."

Fun bit over, McPherson began to lavish praise on Kimmel and his show, which got a lot of buzz this season when Kimmel's then-girlfriend Sarah Silverman debuted her video "I'm [having sex with] Matt Damon" and Kimmel responded with his own video, "I'm [having sex with] Ben Affleck."

"His show has exploded this year. He's done an amazing job. . . . This show creatively is firing on all cylinders, and we're hugely supportive of it," McPherson said, and any conversations about Leno at ABC would include Kimmel.

Leno continues to be the most popular talk-show host in late-night television, and broadcast networks and syndicators are lined up to make him offers. In 2004, NBC promised "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien starting in '09 so as not to lose him during contract negotiations. This May, NBC announced Jimmy Fallon will take O'Brien's post-"Tonight" slot.

* * *

Katie Holmes is ABC's Britney Spears.

Former "Dawson's Creek" producer Greg Berlanti, looking for a way to bring more viewers to his struggling "Eli Stone," approached Holmes and persuaded her to do a guest spot on the series, playing an attorney who can sing and dance.

"It's great!" ABC's McPherson told TV critics when asked about the publicity stunt at the Thank God We're Still Working Summer TV Press Tour 2008.

"It's a great role for her -- she actually does some singing and dancing and she's exquisite," McPherson said. Holmes will appear in this season's second episode of "Eli Stone," on Oct. 21.

The former "Dawson's" starlet has become a fave among tabloid publications and celebrity suck-up shows since having a child with Hollywood's No. 1 weirdsmobile, Tom Cruise, marrying him and sharing entrees with scary Posh Spice, and on and on and on.

"It's a really special piece of business," McPherson said of her guest role, "and, obviously, for a show that we really creatively believed in and had a tough launch because of the strike, it helps us from a promotional standpoint."

Similarly, CBS's "How I Met Your Mother," which has not performed up to the ratings of that network's other Monday comedies, had great success getting in-the-news pop-wreck Britney Spears to do a guest spot, playing a receptionist/kinda-stalker. The Britbrit episode wound up clocking the show's biggest audience ever among viewers 18 to 54 years old, and a season-best 11 million viewers of all ages.

The idea of using Berlanti's relationship with the attention-getter to drum up more viewers came about during a discussion with fellow show producers, he told critics during Wednesday's Q&A session on the sophomore series, about a lawyer named Eli Stone who suddenly developed prophetic powers. Berlanti told his colleagues he'd be willing to approach Holmes, who played Joey Potter on the WB network's hit drama from '98 to '03.

"I went and I begged her and she said, 'I'd love to,' " Berlanti told TV critics.

"Eli Stone" has used song and dance before. Pop star George Michael sang in the debut last TV season and he's tentatively scheduled to return for the show's Christmas-themed episode, Berlanti said.

And, in a deliciously uncomfortable moment, one TV critic took a microphone and asked series star Jonny Lee Miller:

"Continuing on the shameless topic: I'm sorry, Jonny, you were married to Angelina Jolie. She would be the stunt cast of all time -- would she do TV? Would she do your show? Could you call her?"

Miller responded, "You'll have to call her, I'm afraid."

Or he may have said:

"You'll have to call her. I'm afraid."

It depends on which TV critic you ask.

* * *

Speaking of starlet train wrecks, ABC's McPherson chastised "Grey's Anatomy" star Katherine Heigl, elliptically, for telling the news media the material the writers gave her on the show this past season wasn't good enough to merit putting herself in contention for an Emmy nomination. But he insisted that, contrary to tabloid rumors, she's "absolutely staying with the show" and "there is an unbelievable story line for her this year which is really central to everything that's going to go on this season." It was personally crafted for Heigl by show creator Shonda Rhimes.

"There's so many people who work so unbelievably hard to make that show the number one show in the country," McPherson said. "It's a beautifully written, beautifully acted, beautifully produced show. Everyone from the grips to the writers to the [executive producers], I think, deserves an enormous amount of credit and I never like to see when any of them are in any way taken lightly."

Heigl was the surprise winner of last year's Primetime Emmy Award for best supporting actress in a drama series. One year later and now considered a hot commodity in the film world, she did not put herself in the Emmy running. That sparked reports she wants off the show, and that Rhimes was personally miffed by Heigl's crack about the script.

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