'Tonight' Gives Tritt the Boot : Television: The country singer's manager claims Travis Tritt and Trisha Yearwood are the latest victims of Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall's booking battle.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Country artist Travis Tritt has been banned permanently from "The Tonight Show," according to his manager, Ken Kragen, because Kragen would not cancel Tritt's scheduled November appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show" to do the NBC program instead.

The dispute over Tritt's late-night booking between Kragen and "Tonight Show" executive producer Helen Kushnick also resulted in another one of Kragen's clients, rising country artist Trisha Yearwood, being dropped from her scheduled appearance on "The Tonight Show," Kragen said.

Kushnick declined to comment Monday, but a source on the program confirmed that efforts were made to book Tritt and that Yearwood's scheduled appearance had been dropped.

Kragen, however, said that Kushnick's message to him last Friday was clear. "She basically said, 'Look, real simple, Travis Tritt is never going to do this show again. You and I are going to see each other around town, we're never going to talk again. It's your loss, you and the record company.' "

The conflict is the latest chapter in television's late-night booking wars, which heated up in May when Johnny Carson left "The Tonight Show" and Jay Leno took over. Since then, Leno and Hall have been competing for the same younger-skewing audiences and guests.

Stories have abounded about the fierce behind-the-scenes competition, including reports that "The Tonight Show" has pressured people to appear there first, but Kragen is the first manager, agent or publicist to go on the record about it. Others have been fearful of jeopardizing their relationship with either show.

"You try to stay out of those conflicts, where people are bitter rivals or competitors," said Kragen, who also manages Kenny Rogers and was a major force in organizing the national relief efforts "We Are the World" and "Hands Across America."

"But sometimes you're drawn into it," he continued. "What you don't expect is people involved are going to then take it out in a way that's vindictive, when all you're trying to do is be honest and straightforward."

Kragen's breaking point occurred, he said, when he perceived that Yearwood, who was scheduled to perform on "The Tonight Show" Oct. 15, was harmed by his problems with Kushnick--even though Yearwood was replaced on "The Tonight Show" by country veteran George Strait, a bigger name in the industry.

"The last thing I ever want--and I can't tell you how many times I've bitten my tongue in this business--is to have a war with anyone," said Kragen, who has since booked Yearwood on "Arsenio" for the same night. "I think they're wasteful.

"But one thing has triggered my willingness to talk about this. That was when (Kushnick) vindictively took Trisha Yearwood off the show because of her dispute with me being unable to book Travis Tritt on the show. That was my flash point, the point at which I have to say, now this woman is injuring one of my clients who is an innocent bystander in order to try and get back at me in any way she can, because I didn't cave in to her threats."

Kragen said that "The Tonight Show" started calling about Tritt last month, when promotion for Tritt's new album "Trouble" kicked into gear. But Tritt already was booked for the Hall show Nov. According to Kragen, Kushnick expected him to cancel Tritt's appointment with Hall to return a favor that "The Tonight Show" did for Tritt earlier in his career.

"I called (Kushnick) and tried to be very conciliatory," Kragen said. "I said, 'I feel badly about this. If you did something for us, I'll return it, but I can't walk away from an obligation I made on another show.' I said, 'I could give him to you a week later, or I could give him to you in January when the CBS movie comes out, and maybe add some other elements (such as Kenny Rogers).' She said, 'We don't do theme shows.'

Kragen said that Kushnick eventually hung up on him. Concerned that the matter would effect Yearwood's booking, which was arranged last spring for her new summer album, Kragen called back Vickers less than an hour later. She informed him that Yearwood's booking was canceled.

Although Kragen said that Kushnick could make a case for herself by saying that Yearwood was bumped to make room for Strait--who has a feature film, "Pure Country," being released in October--he said that's not how events went down. A spokeswoman for MCA Records, where both Strait and Yearwood are signed, confirmed that Strait wasn't booked until Yearwood was off "The Tonight Show."

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