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Tuned In: Better 'Later' than never for Jodi Applegate

Saturday, July 31, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- She's a hometown girl made good.

But people in her hometown know little about her success.

Pittsburgh native Jodi Applegate rose to TV news stardom as host of "Weekend Today" with Jack Ford when she joined NBC News in 1996. But Pittsburgh affiliate WPXI doesn't carry "Weekend Today."

"You always want people to know what happened to you," Applegate said. "I've never gone to class reunions, and I don't have family there so I rarely go back. But every once in a while I'd get a letter or card from someone who happened to see me when they went out of town."

Those days of anonymity back home will end Sept. 7. Applegate, a 1982 graduate of Moon High School, will host NBC's "Later Today," which is expected to air at 9 a.m. weekdays on WPXI.

The one-hour companion to the hugely popular "Today" show won't have regular news or weather segments -- unless breaking news warrants -- but will include interviews, news-you-can-use segments, celebrities and cooking. Jeff Zucker, executive producer of "Today" and executive in charge of its new cousin, said "Later Today" will be more like "Today's" softer 8 to 9 p.m. hour than its newsier first hour.

"It's today, only later," Applegate chirps in NBC's promotional spots.

"We had a team of geniuses working around the clock for months to come up with that one," Applegate said in a press conference.

The tone of NBC's promotions speak volumes about the show's intent: upbeat information and entertainment, primarily geared to women.

"We can be a little bit more opinionated or a little more loose or a little more sassy or free or irreverent than you can be in a traditional newscast," Applegate said.

Think: ABC's "The View" but with one less woman (or "The Few," as Applegate jokes).

Applegate will be joined by Asha Blake, formerly a news anchor at KNBC in Los Angeles, and Florence Henderson. Yes, the Florence Henderson, mother to "The Brady Bunch" and a Today Girl with "Today" show host Dave Garroway from 1959 to 1960.

"Later Today" will air live from a studio inside New York's 30 Rockefeller Plaza, not the street-level studio used by "Today" (although some segments will originate from the outdoor set).

The new program will have a studio audience in what Applegate described as a "coffee shop setup." That interaction with the crowd appeals to Applegate -- she's always wanted "to do a show."

After Applegate was born in Pittsburgh, she lived briefly in Wheeling, W.Va., before moving to Moon, her home from age 5 to 18. Participation in the high school debate team and school plays helped prepare her for her eventual career, although it took some time after graduating from New York University to settle on what that would be.

"I'm kind of like a pinball," Applegate said. "For years I was bouncing around, not sure what I wanted to do."

Applegate worked as a producer for a morning radio show in Washington, D.C., an on-camera traffic reporter in San Francisco and a host/producer for C-SPAN. She even tried acting and stand-up comedy.

"The audience stood up and left, and that's when I stopped," she said.

She landed a job as a field correspondent for the medical series "Dr. Dean" in 1992 and after its cancellation moved on to anchor and report for a station in Reno, Nev., and then anchored "Good Morning Arizona" in Phoenix before jumping to the major league: NBC News.

"All these things I realize now were different shades on the palette," she said. "I don't believe in destiny, but it takes some of us a long time to figure out what's right for us."

Applegate's on-air style is like a more hyper Katie Couric. Where Couric is often described as perky, Applegate is wacky. She likes bad puns and joshing with her co-anchors, which makes her an ideal choice for the looser, less newsy "Later Today." It's a tone that worked when she anchored "Weekend Today" with Jack Ford.

"We were a good team, and we're good friends, because I do wacky, and he doesn't," Applegate said. "He was happy with that, and I was happy with that."

Zucker said nothing will happen on "Later Today" that would embarrass the original "Today" show, which is considered a key NBC franchise. Applegate agreed it's a matter of balance.

"Life is full of pain and suffering, you might as well have fun when you can. But you don't have to be dumb to have fun. There are smart ways to have fun and smart ways to goof around.

"I hope we can bring to it more of a relaxed, casual, but thoughtful and responsible way of talking about the serious stuff that's going on in the world," Applegate said.

With "Later Today" airing in Pittsburgh, Applegate thinks she might finally get recognition in her hometown.

"A teacher called me once and said she wanted to bring a field trip of kids to see me, this famous Moon alum who is on this network show. [The trip] got canceled because of lack of interest, which is great for my ego. Nobody wanted to come because they're like, 'Jodi who?'

"It's mostly pure egomania on my part because I want people to know I made something of myself, gosh darnit," Applegate said. "Make sure people know that's only half-serious."

For Applegate, being half-serious, half-funny is the key to success.

ON THE 'BRADY' SUBJECT: NBC has given the green light to a new series from producer Keenen Ivory Wayans titled "Not the Bradys." The show is about a single black dad who marries a single white mom, but each parent will only have two kids.

"The reason we're not going for three each is I don't want to be sued by Sherwood Schwartz," said NBC entertainment president Garth Ancier, referring to "The Brady Bunch" creator.

The new show has the blessing of the Brady matriarch.

"I think it's a clever idea. I love Keenen Ivory Wayans, and I'll be looking forward to seeing it," said Florence Henderson, who appeared in the Wayans film "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" as a Brady-esque character. "More people have tried to ride on our coattails, and I wish them nothing but luck. And I hope they have more than one bathroom."

TOO MANY COMMERCIALS: When NBC's "Alice in Wonderland" aired during February sweeps a lot of people complained it seemed to have more commercials than usual. Turns out they were right.

NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa said it was an anomaly: The show came in short and someone at NBC formatted the show with extra-long commercial breaks.

CASTING ABOUT: In the overhaul of NBC's "Jesse," the lead character's family is gone and the new season will find her in nursing school. Darryl Theirse ("The Monroes") will play a no-nonsense nurse and nemesis to Jesse (Christina Applegate). Kevin Rahm ("Everything's Relative") will play the doc who supervises Jesse at the university health center where she works.

NBC NOTES: "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" will take its first road trip to Los Angeles the week of Nov. 9. The show will broadcast from NBC's Studio One in Burbank, the longtime home of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." ... NBC will roll out new episodes of all of its series the week of Sept. 20 -- all except "ER." "Third Watch," a new drama about firefighters, paramedics and cops from "ER" creator John Wells, will premiere in the "ER" time slot Sept. 23 before moving to its regular 8 p.m. Sunday home. The season premiere of "ER" will air Sept. 30.

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