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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Three top U.S. comedians next week will bring variety shows to television and one, Rosie O'Donnell, believes the format could stage a comeback amid the slumping economy if families start gathering around TVs for cheap entertainment.
Specials from O'Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres and Stephen Colbert, are each scheduled as one-time events, but if successful they highlight what could be a return to a program format largely absent from U.S. TV for more than 20 years.
"Rosie Live," features Broadway-style singing and dancing from stars such as Gloria Estefan and Harry Connick Jr. O'Donnell and NBC, which airs the show November 26, said it could return as a regularly appearing program.
"The timing is right, I think the economy has made it so people are staying home more and sadly unable to go out," said O'Donnell, 46. "One hour to get around the TV with everyone in your family and laugh, that to me I think is needed now."
For her part, DeGeneres will share the stage of "Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show" on November 29 with a brother and sister pole-dancing team, a Dutch magician and performers from Spain, Germany and other countries.
DeGeneres, 50, who already has a daytime talk show, described herself as a fan of old-time variety shows.
"It's something that I've always loved," she told Reuters. "When I was growing up, it's the kind of thing I watched on television all the time and wanted to bring back. It's fun."
"A Colbert Christmas," which lands on cable channel Comedy Central on November23, takes a satirical approach to typical Christmas TV specials with comedy sketches and singers like country star Willie Nelson and rocker Elvis Costello.
Combining musical acts and sketch comedy with an earnest, anything-goes format, variety programs such as "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" were a staple of nighttime U.S. TV in the 1960s and 1970s.
But they fell out of favor in the 1980s, as TV channels proliferated and audiences shifted to dramas and comedies.
Variety programs remain popular in many parts of the world, from "Eat Bulaga!" in the Philippines to "Sabado Gigante" in Latin America. But current-day U.S. audiences are accustomed to reality TV. The popular "Saturday Night Live," which was launched in the 1970s, retains vestiges of old-time variety.
Larry Auerbach, who worked as a talent agent for 47 years and is associate dean at the school of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, said he would like to see the variety show return, but he doubts it can happen.
"Maybe some day it might come back, but I think it's a different time today," Auerbach said. "People, if they're old enough to remember anything, will consider it old fashioned."
But Craig Plestis, NBC executive vice president of alternative programing, said his network's "America's Got Talent," which combines reality TV and the variety format, has proven popular.
"This is just another extension of that, this is the pure variety show with the glue, which is Rosie O'Donnell around it," Plestis said.
Michael Wright, an executive at Turner Broadcasting System Inc, the parent company of TBS, said DeGeneres' special will show that variety can always find audiences on TV.
"If done correctly, I can't see any obstacles to it working, other than the need for really talented people to execute it well," he said.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte