Are you ready for `He-er-re's Bi-ii-iilll' ?

Clinton and NBC reportedly eyeing TV talk show deal

May 03, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Talk-show television has long been the realm of Oprah! And Regis! And Rosie! But soon the giants of daytime TV could get dwarfed by some big-name competition - a smooth-talking regular guy named Bill!

That would be Bill Clinton, the former president, who this week was in talks with NBC executives about being the host of his own television talk show.

Hard to imagine the one-time leader of the free world gabbing about fat-free desserts and cellulite creams, doing lifestyle makeovers or doling out relationship advice. But, according to one report, he has dreams of becoming the next Oprah Winfrey. With a twist, of course - Oprah hasn't been president (at least not yet).

Most industry insiders doubt we will ever see Clinton strutting onto a living-room set with a sax solo for an intro, noting that the job's grueling hours alone are likely to keep him from turning this idea into a reality. But no matter. Just the thought of Bill Live! had politicos all atwitter yesterday.

Clinton defenders, calling this a chance for a former president to serve up serious commentary on a mass scale, were already setting their VCRs.

"Why not? He'd be entertaining, he'd be topical, he'd attract world leaders," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant based in New York. "Everybody would want to be a guest on that show."

Detractors, of course, launched into an all-you-can-eat Clinton buffet.

"I thought they already had a show, called The Bachelor," said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. He wants to call it, "Bill Clinton Is Making Even Less Sense Than Alan Keyes."

Talking about a Clinton show could be more fun than watching it. Will Clinton wear Camp David leisurewear or a State of the Union outfit? What about a theme song? Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," the 1992 Clinton campaign anthem, is an obvious choice. The set? Think Oval Office meets The View. And guests? Just don't mention the name Monica.

The meeting Wednesday between NBC executives and Clinton in Los Angeles, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, described Clinton's interest as serious, noting that he demanded $50 million a year for the job.

NBC declined comment yesterday, referring reporters to a statement from Clinton's office attempting to downplay the publicity - particularly any hint that the former president was starting to act like a TV diva.

"Yesterday's informal meeting was one of many meetings President Clinton has had with many people over the past year," Julia Payne, a spokesperson for the former president said in the statement. "President Clinton did not demand a talk show. He went to listen. The President is gratified by the range of opportunities that have been presented to him."

Since leaving office, Clinton has busied himself by delivering corporate speeches, each topping $125,000, and working on a memoir that brought him the largest book advance in history - $12 million.

Even with these lucrative projects, there's still the question of what comes next for Clinton, who at 55 is the country's youngest ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt. He still has time for an entirely new career. And given his fascination with Hollywood, rumors circulated even before Clinton left the White House that he would take a new job in movies or television.

Now comes the speculation about a talk show. Clinton reportedly would not want to focus on political subjects, given the potential for a conflict of interest with his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. That leaves him with topics that might not always look so presidential.

"If he's going to do a talk show that in any way secures his reputation in history for future generations, the only thing he can do is a serious political show," says Robert Thompson, a professor of Media and Culture at Syracuse University. "For him to be talking about relationships, or doing what Oprah does, I just don't think the former president wants to be the guy doing that."

But if Clinton goes for gravitas, he might not get viewers. And if that's the case, NBC might not consider the high-brow host more valuable than Friends' Ross or Rachel - though Clinton reportedly wants double what each star of the NBC sitcom gets each year. Even so, the salary is possible: Winfrey, with her mass-market appeal, makes a reported $125 million a year.

And there's this: If Clinton made it to daytime TV, he would be the first president ever to morph himself into an entertainment personality after leaving office. It would be a source of continuing publicity for the network, not to mention fodder for all those TV comedy shows likely to portray him as a sort of Kathie Lee Clinton. Yesterday, the staff at Late Night with Conan O'Brien was already writing material and there isn't even a deal yet.

Political rivals are likely to find plenty of ammo here, too.

"He can get Dr. Phil from Oprah as a guest," says GOP consultant Rick Davis. "One guy feels your pain, the other tells you how to get rid of it."

Still, even the most devoted Clinton bashers say if any former president could turn a talk show into a hit, it's the camera-loving Clinton.

"It's hysterical," says DeLay spokesman Grella. But, he adds, "it's a far better concept than a show entitled Everybody Loves Gerald Ford."

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