LOS ANGELES — The Reagan era is over. But, proclaims Ronald Prescott Reagan, he hasn't had to take a job flipping hamburgers. Or serving as master of ceremonies at Republican fund-raisers. Or writing books, thinly veiled or otherwise, about his famous parents.
"I work in television. I'm sort of a quasi-entertainer," says the 33-year-old Mr. Reagan, the former ballet dancer best known as the younger son of the 40th president of the United States.
In the past, on "Saturday Night Live" and "Good Morning America," that work has included dancing to rock music in his underwear; mounting a bucking bronco at a rodeo; and surviving for six days, alone with his video camera, on a desert island.
Beginning tomorrow night, it will also include leading hourlong discussions -- on "issues of race, gender and class" -- in direct competition with some of the most powerful names of television.
"I'll be a referee, a facilitator and sometimes a commentator," says Mr. Reagan of his role on "The Ron Reagan Show," a five-night-a-week syndicated talk show to be broadcast on 100 stations nationwide (it airs in Baltimore at 12:30 a.m. on Channel 45).
"My qualifications? I have none," he admits cheerfully. But Mr. Reagan sees nothing strange or foolhardy about an ex-Secret Service protectee challenging Johnny, Jay, David and Arsenio -- not to mention Ted -- with honest-to-goodness talking-head discussions.
"There is no school where you go to learn how to be a late-night talk-show host," says the slight, brown-haired Mr. Reagan, who lives with his wife, Doria, in a rented West Los Angeles apartment five minutes from his parents' mansion. "I have the idea that maybe, just maybe, in a nation of 250 million people, there are several hundred thousand, or maybe a couple of million, who want to stay up and watch issues being discussed as they would around their dinner table."
Backing Mr. Reagan in this position are MCA and Fox Television, which have invested $4 million, and the program's executive producer, Kevin Bright (also in charge of the HBO comedy series "Dream On"), who is overseeing the production of 65 episodes.
It is the producers' hope that viewers in the 18-to-49 age range -- highly desirable demographically -- will tune in for Reagan-led discussions of topics like "The Real Goodfellows," "The Morals of Medicine," "The Selling of Women in America" and "Marketing the Professional Athlete," with guests ranging from rappers to authors to academics to sports figures.
To that end, they've designed a hybrid format around Mr. Reagan.
"We've borrowed a little from the daytime talk shows and a little from 'Nightline,' " says Mr. Bright. The shows are taped at the civilized hours of 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., at the studios of public station KCET-TV in Los Angeles. Rather than exchanging punched-up anecdotes with the host, guests will sit in easy chairs on stage and converse among themselves.
To fight off viewer drowsiness, certain entertainment elements will be included. There will be a band, but no banter with the bandleader; questions from the audience, but no free dinners; and entertainment-oriented topics like "Women in Hollywood," but no stand-up comedy routines or performing rock stars.
Instead of an opening monologue, Mr. Reagan will narrate a "videologue," a short taped introduction to the night's topic. Then he'll proceed to the conversation area to lead the discussion.
"I won't be afraid to disagree with anyone," says Mr. Reagan. Indeed, he has made -- in a rather low-key and genial fashion -- a lifelong habit of rebelling against convention. An unabashed liberal, he is a fervent admirer of Bill Moyers and an avid reader and clipper of such publications as Harper's, the Atlantic and the Progressive.
Born during the years his father was himself a television performer, Mr. Reagan grew up in Sacramento, a contrarian left-winger in the California governor's mansion, and joined the Joffrey Ballet instead of entering college.
After quitting the dance company early in his father's presidency, he wrote magazine articles and radio reviews, was the guest host on "Saturday Night Live" (a parody of the famous lip-synching scene from the movie "Risky Business" had him cavorting in his skivvies) and for five years delivered feature reports for "Good Morning America."
That job lasted well into the Bush administration. After leaving "Good Morning America" in 1990, he was co-host of a failed pilot for an afternoon talk show in Los Angeles before signing up for his present venture.
On "The Ron Reagan Show," he intends to keep on doing the unexpected.
"I'm not a journalist. I'm not Ted Koppel. But nevertheless there are broad issues that people are genuinely interested in. There's date rape. Political correctness. The aftermath of the gulf war. Who won, what we won, why we were lied to all along. After the first couple of weeks, I'd like to get into them. Hopefully, they'll let us do that before they throw us off the air."