Somewhere in that blur, Billie Jean King saved the world

The official start of the TV season is still two weeks away and we already have the first truly outstanding special. That's an "American Masters" profile of Billie Jean King, at 8 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 10) on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers:


For Billie Jean King, the 1970s were a
grand blur.

She was winning tennis titles, starting
projects, creating a league. She was changing the world.

“When people say, 'What do you
remember about the '70s?' I go, 'I was tired,'” said King, who is
profiled Tuesday on PBS.. “That's all I remember; I was exhausted
every moment.”

She was averaging four hours of sleep
while doubling as administrator, tennis player and social
revolutionary. And then, 40 years ago, it all peaked:
In June of
1973, King co-founded World Team Tennis, the first pro league to give
equal weight to men and women. On Sept. 20, she had the historic
“Battle of the Sexes” with Bobby Riggs.

“I definitely did not want to play
Bobby,” King said. “He followed me around for two or three

Then he thumped Margaret Court and
re-proclaimed male superiority. “I had to play him,” King said,
because I was worried about Title IX (enforcing gender equality in
school sports), I was worried about our tour …. I was worried about
a lot of things.

This was someone she admired. “As a
child, I read every book I could on tennis,” King said. “I adored
Bobby Riggs because he was a former No. 1 …. I had total respect
for him.”

As the match got closer, however, his
statements became more outrageous. “He was a promoter,” said
Susan Lacey, producer of the “American Masters” series that is
profiling King.

It would be a huge blow if Riggs at 55
beat King, then 29. The night before the match, she told her brother
(major-league pitcher Randy Moffit) she would win. Still, she says,
she fretted.

“I was down 4-2 in the first set,”
King said. “I thought … the first set was absolutely vital.”

She stormed back and won in straight
sets. In the years ahead, Lacey said, King would be the first female
league commissioner, the first female athlete to win the presidential
medal of freedom and now the first athlete, male or female, profiled
by “American Masters,” in its 197th film. She became,
Lacey said, “a major force in changing and democratizing our
cultural landscape.”

There would be more hurdles, peaking
when a “palimony” case revealed that she is gay. That was a major
issue in 1981; her parents, hugely supportive otherwise, hesitated.

“My dad (a firefighter) actually was
better than my mother about it,” King said. “At the end, he
finally said to me: 'Don't worry, honey. Mom will come around.'”

On gender issues, King said, gaps
persist. “We have so far to go. In Congress, we're at 19 percent;
four per cent of women are engineers …. 70 percent of poverty is
still with women.”

But that hype-filled tennis match did
have an impact … something she told Riggs as their friendship grew.
“I used to tell him this match was about history and about change.
And he used to say, 'Honey, it's about money, you know, and
But in 1995, 77 and drained by cancer, Riggs revised
his view, she said. “He goes, 'I guess we really did make a
difference, didn't we?' … And then he passed away the next day.”

  • “American Masters”

  • 8-9:30 p.m. Tuesday, most PBS


Arsenio, Bethenny, Latifah ... the new TV talkers are here

Officially, the new TV season is two weeks away. For stations and talk-show fans, however, it starts now. On Monday, the Arsenio Hall and Bethenny Frankel shows start Monday (Sept. 9); Queen Latifah is a week later. Here's the overview I sent to papers; scroll down after that foe Hall and Frankel profiles.


For TV stations, it's moving time

Old talk-show hosts – Jeff Probst,
Ricki Lake, Anderson Cooper – are moving out. New ones are arriving
– Arsenio Hall and Bethenney Frankel on Monday (Sept. 9), Queen
Latifah a week later.

That's part of the annual shuiffle, as
stations fill their non-network timeslots. This year, it includes a
couple key comedy reruns (“Modern Family” and “The Middle”)
and assorted oddities – including two shows (“Paternity Court”
and “The Test”) that will sometimes have paternity tests.

Near the top, however, are those new
talk shows.

In daytime slots, there's Frankel,
whose outgoing personality scored on “Real Housewives of New York”
and two spin-offs. Her talk show will be upbeat, she said, with some
serious subjects – sex, business, diet, love – and some others.
“It's definitely going to have its shallow moments.”

And there's Latifah who describes a
blend of variety-show moments and an Oprah Winfrey mood. “There's a
space in daytime television for … a whole bunch of fun, some
amazing music, but really some heart. I think (Winfrey) was able to
tap into that …. I would love to tap into the heart.”

In latenight spots, there's Hall, whose
previous show (1989-94) had a fresh, hip feel. “It's kind of the
same Arsenio,” he said. “Less hair, less shoulder pads, but
inserting myself into this culture of music, comedy, pop, hop.”

The difference is that the top
latenight turf is tougher now. By February, it will have two Jimmys
(Kimmel and Fallon), plus David Letterman and lots of cable shows. “I
call this a golden age of late-night TV,” said Neal.Kendall, one of
Hall's producers.

That still leaves lots of room, said
John Ferriter, anther Hall producer. “There are 290 million
Americans who don't watch late-night.”

Meanwhile, daytime has had huge gaps,
ever since Oprah Winfrey left. The new talk shows have major people
as producers. For Frankel, it's Ellen Degeneres; for Latifah, it's
Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

“I couldn't think of anyone else who
could win in this space besides Latifah,” said Pinkett Smith, who
feels her friend fits the requirements neatly. “She is extremely
likable …. She's a lot of fun.”

And soon, she and Frankel will try to
give daytime a fun injection.

  • “The Arsenio Hall Show” and
    “Berthenny” debut Monday (Sept. 9)

  • “The Queen Latifah Show”
    debuts Sept. 16

  • Each continues weekdays, in a
    non-network line-up



Arsenio's back ... at last

Arsenio Hall left his TV show way too soon and stayed away too long. Now, 19 years later, he's back, entering an overcrowded late-night field. Here's the profile I sent to papers; I also sent sent an overview and a Bethenny Frankel profile. Hall and Frankel both start their shows Monday (Sept. 9):



When Arsenio Hall invaded late-night TV
in 1989, it was open turf.

NBC had Leno-Letterman, ABC had news,
Fox had failure. Cable had a lot of reruns and CBS was preparing a
Pat Sajak show.

This was easy for a guy who was young
(33) and funny, with hip music taste. “The first Friday I was on,
Bobby Brown broke 'Don't be Cruel' and 'My Prerogative,'” Hall
said. “Same night, same show.”

On a makeshift line-up of Fox and
independent stations, he soared … then left after just five years.
“I needed balance in my life,” he said, “not only personally,
but professionally.”

His professional life didn't go well.
Hall turned down “Bad Boys,” which helped boost Will Smith; he
did a failed comedy, joined “Martial Law” after it started,
hosted a “Star Search” revival.

His personal life was better. Hall
dated, had a son and five years ago considered a return to
late-night. .

“I had an appointment at Paramount …
and something happened with my son at school,” he recalled. He went
to the school, not the meeting. “It wasn't time, you know.”

Now it is. “My son's 13 now and he's
having me drop him off a block from the movie theater. That's usually
the sign that you can go back to work comfortably.”

But now the competition is tougher …
and in some cases younger than Hall, 57. ABC has Jimmy Kimmel, 45; in
February, NBC will shift to Jimmy Fallon, 38. CBS has David Letterman
and a vibrant cable world has Jon Stewart, Conan O'Brien, Chelsea
Handler and W. Kamau Bell.

How will Hall stand out? “Music in
late night is often relegated to just the last few minutes,” said
Neal Kendall, one of his producers. “And more often than not, you
don't even hear the musicians talk. Yet I find them some of the most
interesting guests.”

Hall likes to talk to musicians, likes
to let them do a second song. He's a preacher's kid from Cleveland
who brings a different perspective.

“There's a lot of great late-night,”
said John Ferriter, another producer. “There are a lot of really
funny, talented people. There's not as much diversity.” Or there
hasn't been since Hall left, 19 years ago.

  • “The Arsenio Hall Show” debuts
    Monday, in non-network spots (check local listings)


Bethenny Frankel enters talking

Here's the Bethenny Frankel profile I sent to papers. I'm also including the two stories that go with it -- an overview of new TV talk shows and a profile of Arsenio Hall; like Frankel, he has a syndicated talk show opening Monday (Sept.9).


In a twisty-turny life, Bethenny
Frankel has rarely been able to sit back and contemplate.

She enters talking; she booms and
blurts and makes an impression.

“I went to, I think, 13 schools,”
Frankel recalled. “I was always the new kid ….I was always able
to just kind of go into a room and meet new people.”

That's one way to prepare for TV talk
shows. Frankel's father and stepfather were horse-trainers; her
mother, she has said, was alcoholic and angry. “I was always with
adults as a kid. I kind of grew up at the racetrack. (It's) a really
colorful place and it kind of prepares you for all types and all

Later, she arranged show-business
parties, studied at a culinary school and was runner-up on Martha
Stewart's “Apprentice” spin-off.

“I really did want that job,”
Frankel said. “That was a job for $250,000; I was flat broke ….I
wanted to be Martha Stewart's successor. She democratized style; I
wanted to democratize health.”

So she guested on a lot of talk shows,
then joined “Real Housewives of New York City.” Frankel (who had
divorced after a brief marriage) wasn't a housewife, but she did fit
in. “I have a mouth for nighttime …. I think I'm a polarizing

On two follow-up series, viewers saw
her marry and have a baby. Then – after a successful try-out for
her talk show – that second marriage fell apart. She doesn't plan
to talk about the divorce on her show, but everything else – food,
health, business, sex – interests her.

“I'm pretty open and I reveal a lot
about myself,” Frankel said. “I've gone through a lot of
different things and I am going through a lot of things right now.”

  • “Bethenny” debuts Monday
    (Sept. 9) in non-network time slots



Stardom's not enough? Now Dempsey hits the race track

In the perverse fashion of TV, this slow week has two interesting debuts ... at exaclty the same time.

That's 10 p.m. Wednesday (Aug. 28). One cable channel has the sometimes-compelling "Surviving Evil" (see previous blog); another has a sometimes-interesting portrait of actor Patrick Dempsey's journey into big-time car-racing. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Patrick Dempsey is near the top of the
TV world, star of a show (“Grey's Anatomy”) that just won't quit.
So what does he do with his spare time?

The same thing Paul Newman, Steve
McQueen and James Garner did – become a big-time race driver.

“He's climbed the ladder from novice
to expert,” said Bob Scanlon, senior vice-president of the
Velocity cable channel. Now Velocity has “Patrick Dempsey: Racing
LeMans,” a four-week series.

But what about his day job? Shouldn't
“Grey's Anatomy” stardom be enough?

“My moods change dramatically in the
course of 12 months, … depending on where we are in the run of the
show,” Dempsey said. “But it's a different type of passion.”

For good or bad, it's easy to get used
to playing the same doctor for a decade. “When you're in a long
show,” Dempsey said, “there's less discovery …. It doesn't
change. In a race, it changes constantly – every lap, every corner,
every moment …. And that, to me, is very exciting and keeps me

This all began when his wife gave him a
present – a course at the Skip Barber racing school. “She opened
Pandora's box,” Dempsey said. “(Now) I think she realizes it's
important for me.”

The “Grey's” producers – who want
him to keep coming back as Dr. Derek Shepard – have cooperated.
Their insurance company, however, insisted he drive a closed-top car,
limiting his choices. Dempsey picked a Lola prototype … then, as
his team assembled it, learned the company was going out of business.
After much scrambling, he raced LeMans in a Porsche RSR.

He hired two other drivers – his
mentor and a young Lola expert – and some experienced mechanics.
Then came the constant crises … which a reality show needs

“Everywhere you look, there's a”
dramatic story, said producer John Watkins. “It's man against
machine and man against money and … time … and fame. And man
against family obligations.”

Dempsey's family – including a
daughter, 11, and 6-year-old twin boys – may be fine with this.

“The kids love it,” he said. “My
daughter wants to race and she's a good driver already …. She
picked it up on her own. She steals the golf cart and runs around the

– “Patrick Dempsey: Racing LeMans”

– 10 p.m. Wednesdays, Velocity;
starts Aug. 28, for a four-week run

– “Grey's Anatomy,” off the air
this summer, starts its 10th season Sept. 26