In Depth

Can NBC, Rosie Revive Variety?

Liza Minnelli Lends Star Power to Effort

Having already revolutionized daytime talk and reinvigorated “The View,” Rosie O’Donnell is now hoping to resurrect one of television’s storied genres: the variety show.

It’s a tall order—which may be one reason Ms. O’Donnell has enlisted some serious showbiz firepower for her Nov. 26 NBC special, dubbed “Rosie Live.”

“Liza Minnelli will be on the show,” Ms. O’Donnell revealed last week in an exclusive interview with TelevisionWeek. “It’s showbiz royalty. I couldn’t do it without her.”

Will Ms. O’Donnell perform a duet with Ms. Minnelli, whose 1972 variety/concert special “Liza With a Z” won multiple Emmy Awards?

“Of course! What, are you kidding me?” Ms. O’Donnell laughed. “This is the dream for every girl from Long Island who ever sang in the mirror to ‘Cabaret.’ This is as good as it gets for me.”

Ms. O’Donnell is keeping specifics of the musical number under wraps for now, though she hinted that Ms. Minnelli will sing “a song you haven’t heard her perform in over 30 years.”

“Rosie Live” and variety-show projects in the works at Fox and CBS represent the most ambitious attempts to bring back the genre in 20 years.

With standard-issue competition-based reality shows proving tougher to launch these days, networks are hoping variety shows might provide the same sort of scheduling sizzle that series such as “American Idol” offer.

As for the details of Ms. O’Donnell’s variety special—technically a back-door pilot for a regular “Rosie” series—the hour will borrow from two of television’s most celebrated series.

“It’s the standard old format of ‘Carol’ meets ‘Ed’,” Ms. O’Donnell said, referring to Carol Burnett and Ed Sullivan’s long-running variety shows. “We have production numbers, we have big musical guests. We have variety entertainment in the vein of Cirque du Soleil with this wonderful New York group called Antigravity. And we have comedy sketches and celebrity surprises.”

Other scheduled guests include Kathy Griffin, Jane Krakowski (“30 Rock”), hip-hop artist Ne-Yo and singer Alanis Morissette.

Ms. O’Donnell’s show will air live on the East Coast at 8 p.m.—with the standard 5-second delay—and will originate from the Little Shubert Theater on Manhattan’s 42nd Street. Doing the hour live rather than on tape was “something I insisted on,” Ms. O’Donnell said.

“I wanted to have that feeling of, ‘You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what she’s gonna say,’” she explained. “I wanted it to be like a Broadway show … where you know and 600 people know you’re going to go on this amazing ride.”

Other elements borrowed from Broadway include a 20-piece live orchestra and a comedy sketch based on characters from the Tony-winning musical “Urinetown.”

Ms. O’Donnell also will have an opening monologue and will take part in several production numbers and song parodies.

“We’re talking about one song that imagines what would’ve happened if [Sen. John] McCain had won the election,” Ms. O’Donnell said.

She’s also trying to convince at least two of her kids to make cameos on the show, though nothing has been locked down.

What Took So Long?

Given Ms. O’Donnell’s fondness for the variety format—something she talked about frequently on her Telepictures-produced daytime talk show—it’s surprising she’s just now getting around to hosting her own special. But it turns out Ms. O’Donnell has actually been trying to get “Rosie Live” off the ground for more than six years.

“Since my show ended May 22, 2002, I’ve been telling everyone I want to do a variety show,” she said. “And everyone said to me, ‘Well, variety doesn’t work.’ I said, ‘“American Idol,” hello? “Dancing With the Stars”? People!’ These are all variety shows, only they have judges, and they’re not quite as entertaining.”

Ms. O’Donnell said she and her representatives “pitched every network” but couldn’t get anyone to sign on.

“Finally Ben Silverman got in there and asked for a meeting,” she said, referring to NBC Entertainment’s co-chairman. “I sat down with him and he said to me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I told him, and he said, ‘Great.’ This is the one guy who said yes after six years of people saying no.”

“The moment everyone else is saying no is probably the best moment to say yes,” Mr. Silverman said. “Variety is a format that’s not on the air right now, and doing this show live feels so relevant in the age of the DVR.”

Mr. Silverman added that Ms. O’Donnell also has a “must-see” quality as a performer.

“Whether you love her or not, you’re interested in seeing what’s going to happen when she’s on TV,’ he said. “She’s just a great live performer.”

Mr. Silverman’s greenlight came around the same time Fox was beginning to formulate plans for its own stab at reviving variety via a series of specials with Ozzy Osbourne and his family. Fox expects to premiere its first Osbournes show early next year.

While ABC in 2004 aired a couple of variety-like specials starring Jessica Simpson and then-husband Nick Lachey, the O’Donnell and Osbournes projects represent the most serious attempts at bringing back the genre since 1987. That’s when ABC’s Dolly Parton-led “Dolly” crashed and burned after just one season, souring network executives on variety for decades.

The success of shows such as “Idol,” “Dancing” and “America’s Got Talent” no doubt played a role in getting networks to reconsider variety. But “Rosie Live” executive producer David Friedman believes having the right personality is essential.

“The key to a successful show is the talent,” he said. “And Rosie is a true entertainer. When she’s on stage, everyone’s laughing and having a good time.”

“Rosie Live” represents Ms. O’Donnell’s most significant television appearance since her sudden departure from “The View” last year. After a turbulent year talking politics and current events, the variety show also marks Ms. O’Donnell’s return to entertaining a mass audience.

“I missed performing in front of a live crowd, so it will be fun to get back to that,” she said, noting she kept her showbiz muscles toned by touring with Cyndi Lauper on the singer’s “True Colors” tour last summer.

While Ms. O’Donnell is quick to make jokes about her stormy tenure on “The View”—at one point comparing it to the Kathy Bates movie “Misery”—she said doing the show was a good way to “stretch” herself after the fun and games of “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.”

“Doing ‘The View’ was helpful,” she said. “It reminded people that, ‘Oh, wow, she has an opinion and a brain and a very loud voice.’”

Sigh of Relief

Ms. O’Donnell is also glad her NBC show is coming after the election of Barack Obama.

“It couldn’t be better timing,” she said. “The election’s over and everyone’s happy. I was deeply concerned for the election. … I feared for my own mental health as well as the nation’s.”

Ms. O’Donnell joked that she initially had a hard time believing Sen. Obama had won, particularly after Sen. John Kerry came so close to winning in 2004.

“The last time, I went to bed happy then woke up back in the Bush nightmare,” she said. “I was afraid this time they were going to find a van full of votes in Utah or something.”

Ms. O’Donnell could have a relatively busy 2009 in front of the cameras.

She recently wrapped production on “America,” a Lifetime movie about foster care that also stars Ruby Dee. And if NBC likes the ratings for “Rosie Live,” the show will return as a regular series next year.

Ms. O’Donnell said her plan is to produce the series in six-episode batches.

“Six, to me, is the perfect amount,” she said. “We can do six and everyone can get excited, then we can take a little break and come back later. It seems to me that’s the way TV is going—much more stunted.”

What seems less likely, however, is a return to a five-day-a-week syndicated talk show.
“I don’t know if I could do that,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “I’m a 46-year-old woman, almost 47. That was a job for when I was much hungrier than I am now.”