When Joan Rivers let loose with a diva tirade to the New York Post's Page Six just days before the Emmys, it sounded to many kudos watchers like she was conceding scuttlebutt now making the rounds: that the star who claims to have invented red-carpet hosting will never return.
Joan and Melissa have already split with two networks — E! and the TV Guide Channel — and were just reduced to doing their schtick from home on, egad, the Internet. Are they kaput?
"Joan and Melissa, the second they found out Ryan Seacrest was hosting the Emmys, called E! to see if they could do the red carpet for them. But it's not going to happen," a source told the Post prior to the Emmycast.
"How dare they?!" Joan raged. "It's just mean and wrong. Are they out of their minds? Are they out of their [bleep]ing minds?"
"Let's get real here," she added. "I started it. I did it."
Actually, that's not quite true. Let's give credit where it's due (or blame to whom it belongs) — to former E! network news reporters Michael Caster, Dagny Hultgreen and Steve Kmetko, who were the first to ask a question on a red carpet that many thought ridiculous at the time and is now universal: "Who are you wearing?" Back in the early 1990s I worked those shows with them as E!'s resident awards expert and observed, in between our kudos chats on air, the shock on stars' faces when they posed the inquiry at the Emmys, for example, held out at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in those days. (Now the gala's held at the Shrine.) A few years later, when Joan and Melissa took over in 1996, Michael, Dagny and Steve graciously stepped aside to host the earlier "Countdown" show.
But I digress. Back to Joan and Melissa and the part of the Page Six interview that suggested that they might believe their red-carpet reign may be over.
"It's lost its fun and I'm so not attached to it," Joan said. "The fun was when the celebrities dressed themselves and looked funny. Now they all look perfect and are being very careful with what they say. All the PR ladies decide who talks to you, and it's wrong. It's become so sanitized.
"When I began there, there were no stylists and it was fun — people looked different. It's become a rat [bleep] now, with everyone grabbing, everybody trying to do what I do — and they can't do it!"
Hmmmm. That sure sounds like sour grapes, doesn't it? Perhaps. But I know Joan and how she can get. For 11 years I worked with her and Melissa on some of their red-carpet shows, and I even ditched E! and went over to the TV Guide Channel to join them when I was asked. Joan can be a volcanic diva, of course, but when the ashes clear, she can quickly turn into a sunny, nurturing Jewish mama. No doubt the Post caught her in rumbling mode. That doesn't mean she isn't also hopeful about work prospects ahead.
I have a hunch — and more than that — that Joan and Melissa are secretly planning a dramatic comeback to the red carpet.
It's just going to take a while — like it did when they scooted to the TV Guide Channel in 2004 after they were told that their E! contract would not be renewed because, frankly, E! President Mindy Herman wanted to install her own regime on the carpet. (Joan and Melissa had been signed up by previous prez Lee Masters.) The Rivers gals missed the next Emmys even though they were already signed up by TV Guide with an $8-million, three-year deal. Back then the delay had to do with the fact that E! had rigged an exclusive cable-channel agreement with the TV academy, so TV Guide couldn't get on the carpet. This time other factors are at play.
What's key about current circumstances is that Joan and Melissa did their Internet gig with VH1. That sure makes you wonder: Is the music channel planning to get into the red carpet biz? If so, why weren't Joan and Melissa at the Emmys repping VH1? Currently, no rival network has an exclusive deal. The TV Guide Channel eventually busted that E! monopoly, opening up the carpet to other cable players.
When I recently asked Joan's PR rep if the Rivers gals will work red carpets for VH1 in the future, she got noticeably nervous and replied: "No comment."
Very smart, because there's probably no answer to that question yet, even if VH1 wants to move ahead.
It's a complicated situation. Take it from me. I've worked those red carpets for 16 years. Believe it or not, they're relatively short, they're packed tight, and competition for real estate is fierce. Joan and Melissa may not have invented red-carpet hosting, but they made it famous and so glam and fun that now everybody wants in on the act. Who gets bumped so that Joan and Melissa can get two positions along the carpet — one of them a large platform for Joan that takes the place of seven or eight regular spots? What award organization has the guts to tell eight or nine TV channels that they can no longer be on the scene?
And why should any award group bother? What's the upside? They'll lose coverage from eight or nine channels so they can gain one?
Now the next wrinkle: Some award groups — surprise — don't like those Rivers gals. Did you notice that Joan never did a SAG Awards show? The guild didn't want her there. The uppity Oscars reluctantly tolerated her presence early on but made it clear they disapproved of her increasingly crass schtick. Then Joan really pushed their buttons. I warned her and her producers to please drop the jokes about Kathy Bates' weight. Back then Bates was vice chairwoman of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, for crying out loud. But the jokes stayed in the script, and Oscar chiefs got more and more ticked off.
Imagine what those Oscar chiefs would say today if VH1 came a-knocking, asking the academy to bump another TV channel off the carpet so Joan Rivers may return. The Oscars would never give Joan a whole platform. She didn't get that when she was at E! or the TV Guide Channel — only at the Emmys and Golden Globes. So the request would just be for one carpet position plus a spot on the bridge over the carpet where Melissa could hold forth like she used to. But there are only about eight or so spots on the bridge, and they're all currently held by TV outlets that have been there for years, such as "ET," CNN, E! and TV Guide.
But let's say all of these issues could be resolved happily. There's another major glitch: money. The kind of multi-camera, satellite-beamed live programming currently done by E! and TV Guide costs $500,000 to $1 million, depending on various factors. Why should VH1 spend that much on a one-day program when they can get a whole season-long reality TV series or two for the same dough?
VH1 may be intrigued at the idea of launching red-carpet shows with Joan and Melissa and is probably exploring the possibility, but the network is also facing grim realities while asking the gals to just sit tight and dish Emmys on its website.
If things don't work out at VH1, the Rivers could always try to rig a deal with a channel that's already got a red-carpet position, but chances are they'll just get one spot, not two, and certainly not a grand platform or a separate bridge position like glory days of yore. Furthermore, virtually all of those other TV channels along the carpet aren't telecasting live. They're shooting tape to be aired later on CBS, NBC or MTV. The Rivers would have to persuade that network to invest a fortune to do the live bit.
Lastly, everybody in showbiz, including TV execs — let's face it — are fully aware of how much drama comes with working with those rascally Rivers gals. Sure, they're worth it, but who's game for it? It was the drama that made the TV Guide Channel throw in the towel, not the relatively low ratings (compared to the Nielsens they used to reap for E! — Joan and Melissa did deliver the highest ratings in the history of TV Guide Channel) or their high salaries. Several inside sources told me the same thing, not wanting to be quoted by name because they weren't speaking officially on the network's behalf. Curiously, they said they could handle Joan and Melissa's diva antics, but not their handlers' too. Specifically troublesome was Melissa's manager, who she eventually ditched, but by then it was too late, sources say. The damage had been done.
I think the Rivers can — and will — recover from all of this and someday return to glory, but it's going to take a while. Meantime, don't be surprised if they pop up just on the Grammy carpet where VH1 already has a prominent place.
There's lots of speculation that they might also surface on Bravo, which, like Joan and Melissa, has a big gay following and an appreciation for their campy humor. Joan did a comedy special for the channel, so they have a past relationship. But Bravo is owned by NBC, which may not be eager to promote award shows on ABC (Oscars) or CBS (Grammys) and, if it did, might prefer to use its own network diva, Kathy Griffin (star of "My Life on the D-List," which just won the Emmy for best reality program), who hosted red-carpet shows for E! after the Rivers exit. Griffin did a terrif job on E! and left only when her old nemesis, Ryan Seacrest, took over the network news division and, with it, red-carpet programming.
Long term, their best bet may be Reelz Channel, some observers say, the new movie network, which already has spots on several carpets and the drive to make it in the big leagues. For now it's a rookie player seen mostly on DirecTV and other satellite hookups, but Reelz is quietly striking deals to break into cable boxes. Late next year, Reelz will be included on Time Warner Cable.
But would those grand divas, Joan and Melissa, agree to partner with an emerging newbie? And would struggling Reelz agree to pay the lofty salaries the gals would no doubt demand to do so? Plus the hefty TV production costs to go live?
Can we talk?
UPDATE (9/21) - Below, in the comments section, note Melissa Rivers' response to this report: "Wow, Tom! I guess all the times that I went to the mat to keep you as part of the team at E! and TVGN, were just "diva antics". If you only knew..." My reply to Melissa can be found below, too. Also note that I've added, in parenthesis, a clarification to the above discussion of their "relatively low ratings" — I mean that in comparison to the Nielsens they reaped at E! As noted above, they did bring TV Guide Channel the highest ratings in that network's history.