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Jane Pauley gets ready for her closeup

New talk show in the tradition of ‘Oprah’
/ Source: The Associated Press

No one’s delivered a couch yet, but Jane Pauley is giving a tour of the Rockefeller Center studio where her new daytime talk show will start next Monday. The audience seats are arranged in a semicircle for a feeling of intimacy.

Behind her is the wall that opens up to reveal the word “Jane” in giant letters.

She wishes she could say the star treatment she received from audiences during run-throughs was awkward or embarrassing for someone who delivered the news to a camera for 30 years.

Instead, she kind of likes it.

Her daughter, a Yale University student, can already do a drop-dead impersonation of mom walking onstage and soaking up the adulation.

“It was very exciting until a week or two later when I heard about the ‘applause’ signs,” she said. “But it’s still exciting.”

“The Jane Pauley Show,” trading on the warmth and good will its star built during years as “Today” show and “Dateline NBC” host, is the season’s most anticipated syndicated program. Stations in 148 of the nation’s 150 top markets committed to airing it, an unprecedented level of support for a rookie airing.

“That is really something frightening and every now and then I do have flutters of pressure,” she said. “But they subside.”

Much like a political candidate entrusted with great hope, Pauley is into lowering expectations and hoping her audience grows into the role with her.

Not just the face of newsIt wasn’t where she expected to be when she announced last year she was quitting “Dateline” to pursue other opportunities. Soon after, she agreed to a meeting with the chief of NBC’s syndication arm chiefly as a courtesy.

But when the idea of a daytime talk show was pitched, Pauley said she realized it might be the best way of advancing her own ideas and interests. As a news anchor, she was always the face in front of somebody else’s show.

“I realized that everything I had been thinking about would lend itself to a daytime talk show topic,” she said. “It was about 100 times bigger and more responsiblity than I had imagined, but on the other hand I had done television for 30 years. That’s what I do.”

A glance at the board outlining the first month’s topics shows where it is headed. There’s a talk with a design psychologist, an expert to help people erase credit card debit, a segment on cleaning up clutter, a “lunch hour makeover” and an exploration of why so many people are overweight.

(She’s even provided her own personal daytime talk topic: revealing in her autobiography that she spent time in a hospital in 2001 for treatment of bipolar disorder brought on by a rare reaction to prescription drugs.)

“The one thing I won’t promise is that it will be uniquely different,” said Michael Weisman, executive producer, “because the quality of daytime talk shows has risen so much in the past five years. If there’s something worth doing, either Oprah, Dr. Phil or Ellen has done it.”

His biggest job, Weisman said, “is to make Jane comfortable.”

Pauley, 53, genuflects in the direction of Oprah Winfrey, who she called fabulous, filled with charisma and “bigger than life.”

“I’m not,” she said. “I’m pretty much life-sized. All I can do is make a virtue of that...I may be well-known but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not a fabulous persona and don’t intend to become one.”

Advice from the rainy cityWhen she sought advice on how to start a talk show, Pauley didn’t call Winfrey or Ellen DeGeneres or Rosie O’Donnell, whose program was the last to regularly occupy Pauley’s current studio.

Instead, she took a detour to Seattle during a recent trip out west to seek out Elisa Jaffe, host of “Northwest Afternoon,” which runs weekdays on Seattle’s KOMO-TV.

As a guest there once, Pauley remembered being impressed by that show’s professionalism. Pre-show questions to Pauley and her sister, Ann, who was also a guest, were framed skillfully to elicit interesting answers.

“It was really useful because as you’re starting up a show, what you most need to know are the processes,” she said. “How do you do it? How do you keep up with the pace of it? I actually learned a lot from this woman.”

Pauley’s older sister is working on the show’s staff, a story that roughly parallels Jane’s.

Ann Pauley was a successful president of a high-tech firm based in Pittsburgh and, like Jane, was wondering if there was something else she wanted to do before reaching retirement age. The two often talked about being partners in some venture.

Ann worked in a largely male executive world, but she taped daytime talk shows and caught up with them later while exercising. Now Ann is applying her fan’s knowledge to help her sister create a show.

“I mostly want to create a good daytime show, to put it on the air with no mistakes,” Pauley said. “I think the audience will give us some time to learn the ropes before I’m compared to Oprah or Phil.”

The studio where “Jane” is written in big letter is where Tom Brokaw introduced her as the new co-host of “Today” back in 1976 — so the place has good vibes.

She hopes they continue.