Daljit Dhaliwal Conquers New York; Is the Times Newscast in Her Future?

There she was, Daljit Dhaliwal, glam news anchor on the verge, woman they love, Letterman muse, lace-tongued Londoner capable of making a ” faaaah-mine ” sound sexy. She was wrapped in a black sweater, recessed on an oversize couch in the lobby of the Royalton hotel in midtown, ordering a bottle of water and looking a weensy bit … weary on a rainy Friday afternoon.

And you’d have looked weary, too, if you, like Ms. Dhaliwal, had been paw-paw-pawing at that hamster wheel called celebrity for the last few years–not because you really wanted to, of course, but because you knew that publicity is part of the game, the way things are done in celeb-sniffing America, where Ms. Dhaliwal’s Britain-based show, ITN’s World News for Public Television (“my baby,” she called it), is big and trying to get bigger.

That’s the trade-off. To get more people to pay attention to Macedonia and Sierra Leone and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, Daljit Dhaliwal has posed for flattering portraits in flattering magazines and told reporters she fancies Ralph Lauren skirts and the Foo Fighters. She–a serious news reader with a serious background–has nodded and smiled as people marveled about her doe eyes and her elegantly sloped nose, or chattered that she shops at Joseph and is, at 38 years of age, single and living in “fashionable” Notting Hill. She let them gush over her in Harper’s Bazaar and Rolling Stone and People ‘s “50 Most Beautiful People.”

Some of the attention was good fun, sure, but it was a strange transition for someone who had barely escaped a bombing while working as a reporter in Belfast to find herself years later with an adoring fan Web site and being subjected to a pesky (and false) rumor that she was ditching journalism to join … Star Trek . But the attention was good for the show, and so she tried to embrace it, this cutesy, cosmetic and very American thing: “being interested in celebrity and personality,” as she described it that afternoon in the Royalton.

And yet, it isn’t exactly her . Daljit Dhaliwal, Next Big Thing, isn’t going to get caught up in her Next Big Thing-ness. Not even when David Letterman himself had summoned his Late Show staff to fly her the heck over from London and get her on his couch so he could playfully try to recruit her to CBS News . Not even when people whisper –loudly– about the real possibility of her coming to America and working on one of the major broadcast networks. Not even now that there’s an actual buzz that Ms. Dhaliwal might be asked to help lead up a new New York Times -MacNeil/Lehrer Productions evening newscast on PBS. “I think she’d be terrific, ” said one public television executive.

The attention has been nice, but Ms. Dhaliwal made it clear she’s not going to be swept up by that corrupting swell of fame, like so many of her news contemporaries. She has danced along with the rumor mill (“A girl has to keep her options open,” was the teasing line she repeated to journalists who asked about job prospects), but she said she didn’t want her own chattering talk show, her own Factor or Hardball . “Ha, ha, ha!” Ms. Dhaliwal guffawed when asked if she’d like to be a pundit someday. “I hadn’t thought about that kind of career path.”

Maybe she had, maybe she hadn’t. Whatever the case, here, on a rainy day in New York, Daljit Dhaliwal was doing some Johnny Depp-ing. Everyone’s favorite rising news celebrity, she said she wasn’t interested in celebrity. “That’s always the wrong reason to get into the business, isn’t it?” she said firmly. “If you want to do that, then go and do something else.”

But she knows she’s not a secret or a cult favorite (she’s been called the latter a lot) anymore. They know her name (pronounced “DAL-jit DALL-i-wall”) at CBS, CNN, NBC and ABC; they know it at the U.N., where she’s moderated several conferences; they also know it, a reporter discovered, at the Punjabi Grocery on Houston Street in the East Village, where the livery drivers call her “the 21 Girl,” because they remember Ms. Dhaliwal from when she was on WLIW 21 public television in Long Island. “I’ve been really surprised by what our audience is,” Ms. Dhaliwal said.

The night before, in fact, Ms. Dhaliwal had been the guest of honor at a WNET dinner for New York public television patrons. There had been some worry at WNET that the checkbooks-with-legs might have hoped to sup with someone like Jim Lehrer or Ken Burns or Big Bird. But no, they did know who Ms. Dhaliwal was; they had watched her at 6 p.m. on Channel 13, and they showed up in droves. “There was great enthusiasm,” said WNET vice president Ward Chamberlain. “The reason they came was to see her and hear her speak.”

And with all of this, there’s a sense that Ms. Dhaliwal’s fame is changing–maturing, perhaps. There will always be a certain percentage of people who watch World News for Public Television because they think she’s a hottie–a Playboy -for-the-articles kind of crowd that doesn’t care if Ms. Dhaliwal talks about Rwanda or recites grain prices–but more people are tuning in because she and World News give them something they can’t get anyplace else, and that something is international news. They are tuning in because World News recognizes that the world holds bigger stories than highway accidents and Renée Zellweger movies and creeps spraying pee-pee on salad bars. They are tuning in because international news in this country has become what Mr. Chamberlain terms “a goddamned disgrace.”

And the praise has been far and wide. “I am personally deeply gratified that she has been able to make world news popular in the United States, as I think there is a terrible dearth of international news on the main networks,” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour wrote in an e-mail from London. “Anything any journalist can do to change that is fantastic as far as I’m concerned!”

Ms. Dhaliwal was not going to jump into that scrum (“As far as predicting the demise of international news, executives in the U.S. have been saying that for quite some time,” was about all she said), but she has to know it’s true. American news operations–in their quest for teen serial-killers and Nicole Kidman and Carnie Wilson’s stomach-staples–gave her and ITN a golden opportunity, and they seized it. As Ms. Dhaliwal sat in the Royalton, there were nearly 100 public television stations in America carrying World News for Public Television . In 1998, when they began, there had been 43.

And the show is good ! World News for Public Television is a respectable news program floating on an ocean of crapola. The broadcast is spare and strait-laced and absent of gimmicks: Ms. Dhaliwal sits in the same place and delivers her lines into the same camera in that glorious accent–part E.M. Forster, part HAL–and throws to ITN correspondents Jules Verne’d around the globe. Most of the news she describes is tough stuff; a World News broadcast can feel numbingly apocalyptic. “With international news, you can always be assured of one thing: that there will be more gloom and doom and people getting killed somewhere in the world, on a massive scale,” Ms. Dhaliwal said, and she wasn’t kidding.

It is strange that Ms. Dhaliwal managed to become a sex symbol through this, the most serious and un-sexy of newscasts. ITN does stories that producers on American news programs would be fired for assigning. The lead two items on a recent broadcast were: “Japan’s Finance Minister Warns Economy on Brink of Collapse” and “Israel Has a New Coalition Government.” Ten-day-old toast ain’t that dry.

“News is a serious enterprise,” she said, again in that firm, unapologetic tone. “It’s a lofty enterprise, and if people want to be informed about their world and they want to be able to form clear and reasonable opinions about what is going on out there, the source is really important.”

Of course, this is public television, and therefore the source isn’t subject to the same pressures. Ms. Dhaliwal doesn’t need to sell cereal and S.U.V.’s and make sure she pulls a respectable rating versus Friends . She doesn’t have to worry about the fact that, on most nights in the U.S., more people care about Hilary Swank’s Oscar gown than a flare-up in the Balkans. “Maybe there’s a certain kind of niche audience for it,” she said of international news. “And that’s why it makes sense for us to be on PBS.”

Ms. Dhaliwal was asked if that might be bad. While the demise of international news on broadcast television might be good for World News for Public Television , isn’t it just … sad that the audience for international news has become a “boutique” audience, like that for cricket matches and cooking shows?

Ms. Dhaliwal blanched at that. Perhaps the question was poorly framed. Perhaps it was the word “boutique,” which may have conjured up an elitist, Masterpiece Theatre -y image. And while Ms. Dhaliwal said she didn’t mind Masterpiece Theatre , she wanted to emphasize that the audience for World News is not primarily Audi drivers and arugula eaters.

“It’s very hard to pigeonhole,” she said of her audience. She recited a couple of anecdotes she had recited to writers before, about getting recognized by a Gap clerk in Miami and a taxi driver at J.F.K. “We’re not snobs about who watches our program,” she said. “The whole idea is that you want as many people to watch the program as possible.”

And they are watching. And as long as they do, the rumor mill will continue to spin about where Ms. Dhaliwal will land next. Mr. Chamberlain at WNET said her name had indeed come up in conversations about the forthcoming National Edition, the aforementioned collaboration between The New York Times and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. ” Yes, yes, yes, yes ,” he said. “I think the lead person should be an American, but she would be a wonderful second-in-charge there.” (A spokesperson at MacNeil/Lehrer Productions said that the staff there thought highly of Ms. Dhaliwal, but declined to comment on the search.)

Ms. Dhaliwal said she doesn’t know much about the National Edition plans. “I’m sure a lot of stuff has yet to be decided,” she said. “And, ah , it sounds like an interesting project, and I’d love to find out more about it.”

Her supporters do not doubt that Ms. Dhaliwal could make the transition from a London to a stateside broadcast, wherever she might land. “I am sure she would be able to, as networks–especially cable–have shown a willingness to break out of the mold occasionally,” Ms. Amanpour wrote in her e-mail.

Mr. Chamberlain was asked if such talk makes him a tad paranoid that Ms. Dhaliwal will eventually leave the nest. ” Sure it does!” he said. “I always wonder about that. She’s so good that if any of the other [network television] people were smart, they’d offer her 10 times what she gets paid now and try to grab her away.”

And that begs the question: What would happen to World News for Public Television should Ms. Dhaliwal leave? Despite her efforts to distance herself from the stateside celeb-a-muck, much of World News ‘ success is undoubtedly tied to her. She is the franchise, as they say in sports. “She is such an important factor in it, and she brings so much to it. that there certainly would be a letdown if she took some fantastic job somewhere else,” Mr. Chamberlain said.

So you are hot, Daljit Dhaliwal, and you know it. And while there are only so many times you can take the silly questions about your appearance and what Letterman was really like, you now have a foot on both sides of the Atlantic–and you have learned to play our game. “I’m very happy doing what I’m doing,” you said that rainy afternoon. “Who knows what the future holds? It’s very difficult to predict, isn’t it?” Though we couldn’t have said it better ourselves, it sounded far better coming from you.

Tonight, World News for Public Television . [WNET, 13, 6 p.m.]

Thursday, April 12

Tonight’s Before They Were Rock Stars examines Hanson. What, does VH1 have ultrasound footage? [VH1, 19, 8 p.m.]

Friday, April 13

Tonight on Cinemax, Jim Toback’s stunt-casted hip-hop mess-ter-piece, Black and White . Enjoy the, ah, chemistry between accomplished actors Allan Houston and Claudia Schiffer. [MAX, 33, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, April 14

The overly trimmed-down Renée Zellweger releases her inner Carrey tonight on Saturday Night Live . [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]

Sunday, April 15

Tonight on MSG, a documentary called Behind the Glory profiles the life of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, he of the 2,715 career hits and one big, fat error. Geez, how did he miss that thing? It was headed straight at him! [MSG, 27, 9 p.m.]

Monday, April 16

“You are the weakest link. Goodbye !” NBC has been trying to ram this spectacularly insipid and annoying catch phrase down your throat for weeks now, long before tonight’s premiere of The Weakest Link , yet another Brit-developed game show that has washed up on our shores. In this show, a team of contestants answer questions and boot the group dunce–the so-called “weakest link”–until only one competitor is left standing. But that’s just the show. Get ready for a long, horrible summer of your allegedly funny friends and co-workers repeating this stupid phrase every time someone says something dumb. Lord help us all. And thanks a lot, NBC. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, April 17

Before bed, check out the WCBS News at 11 . Lately, co-anchors Angela Rae and Ernie Anastos have been standing side-by-side at the beginning of the newscast, like they’re passengers on the No. 4 train. Good stuff! [WCBS, 2, 11 p.m.]