THE NEWS ARRIVES IN 2 NEW PACKAGES : On Fox, 'The Wilton North Report' Tries Something Different in Late-Night Fare

Times Staff Writer

Barry Sand thinks America is ready for something completely different.

Executives at Fox Broadcasting Co. will probably spend a good portion of today praying that Sand is right. The 47-year-old "SCTV" veteran and former producer of "Late Night With David Letterman," gave up his "Letterman" post to create "The Wilton North Report"--Fox's new late-night effort replacing the company's ill-fated "Late Show" with and without Joan Rivers. "The Wilton North Report" debuts tonight at 11:30 on KTTV Channel 11. (The show will be broadcast live to the East Coast at 8 p.m. California time and aired "live on tape" later on Fox stations in the West.)

"How different is it?" as late-night competitor Johnny Carson might ask.

"The Wilton North Report" is so different, says Sand, that it will provide an alternative to the traditional late-night talk show. He calls the new format "Siskel and Ebert meets the news," as a relatively unknown young comedy team from Sacramento--Paul Robins, 29, and Phil Cowan, 30--move to Hollywood to comment on the day's headline news.

"It's the kind of show that I thought I would want to watch in late-night television," Sand says at his new office in KTTV's Wilton North Building (the show was named after the building when producers decided there were too many confusing "Late-Night-Show-Real-Late-Tonight-Live" titles floating around).

"At the bottom of the Nielsen ratings are sitting a lot of talk-show hosts--among them Joan Rivers," adds Sand. "I thought America was ready for something different."

When Rivers was booted off "The Late Show With Joan Rivers" last May, it had dropped from 70th to 124th in the ratings since its debut in the fall of 1986. Fox Broadcasting president Jamie Kellner says that "Late Show" ratings had improved recently with the installation of comedian Arsenio Hall, who became the program's permanent host following a merry-go-round of guest hosts. But he adds that Fox decided after Rivers left to keep "The Late Show" alive only long enough to come up with a new idea.

"I don't think we're going to be competing with Carson, we certainly don't want to do that again," Kellner says. "It's a real alternative to Carson." Kellner admits the venture is expensive, with a budget about on par with late-night network fare such as Letterman's show. Kellner would not reveal the exact figure.

Although Sand turned down an offer to produce the original "Late Show Starring Joan Rivers," he said Fox kept calling him to ask what did he want to do. "I kept saying: 'I want to do something different, with no idea of what I wanted to do," Sand reports. "One day, they called my bluff and said: "OK, do something completely different."

Unlike most late-night fare, "The Wilton North Report" has no studio audience or studio band, no monologue, no stand-up comedians and no sketch comedy. Moreover, Sand did not design his show around an established personality, but instead went looking for two personalities who "suited the sensibility of the show."

Sand calls the show a "hybrid" of qualities he finds missing from both the nightly network news broadcasts and the entertainment programs that usually follow.

"My own dream, my own version of what the news would be is a totally subjective, opinionated presentation of the news," Sand says. "I hadn't seen that before. I'd seen parodies of the news, takeoffs on the news, trivializations of the news, but I'd never seen the news just as it would be reported at 7 o'clock--only with the reporters saying what's really on their minds.

"It's not news in a news setting--it's not two guys behind a desk. We are going to be not reporting the news, but reviewing the news. It's two guys sitting around at the end of the day, talking about what happened."

Although the hosts will look for humor in the news, Sand insists that every segment of the show is based on reality. Instead of a monologue, "The Wilton North Report" will open with a six-minute news report. Each day, a team of writers will put together what Sand calls a "funny newspaper" condensing the events of the day; Robins and Cowan will select some of these stories for their commentary.

Among the writing team are Greg Daniels, Conan O'Brien and Billy Kimball, veterans of "The Harvard Lampoon" and HBO's "Not Necessarily the News"; Paul Krassner, editor of the Realist, and Paul Slansky, whose work has appeared in the New Republic and the Village Voice and who edited Carrie Fisher's recent novel, "Postcards From the Edge."

Following the news report will be a "non-fluff" celebrity interview from New York; the first week's guests include Jodie Foster, Jimmy (The Weasel) Fratianno, First Son Michael Reagan and film director Alex Cox ("Walker"). Sandwiched between the news and interview sections will be what Sand calls the "Segue From Mars," which will make an off-the-wall connection between the day's news and the interview.

Other occasional features, all less than 10 minutes each, include music and performances, health and science reports from Jack LaLanne, investigative reports by Wayne Satz, formerly of KABC-Channel 7, a "Roadside Report" and movie reviews from a 13-year-old boy and an 80-year-old man (the show's hosts will then review the reviews). There may be fan club debates "such as Valerie Harper's fan club vs. Sandy Duncan's," Sand said.

An "Inside Report" will take viewers to San Quentin and Chino prisons, where the inmates will give their opinions on political and social issues as well as their own version of the Nielsen ratings ("They watch a lot of TV in prison," Sand observes).

Another planned regular feature: reports from the editor of the Florida-based tabloid the Sun, a National Enquirer clone that covers such Pulitzer material as root canals performed by Martians and people reincarnated as dogs. The hosts will refute and debate the Sun's stories.

"It's not Sunday-afternoon TV, it's not 'The David Brinkley Report,' " Sands acknowledges when it's suggested that such fare deviates a bit from the gritty, reality-based approach he first touted. "It's an offbeat examination of people in the news."

Both Sand and Kellner say Fox plans to keep a low profile in publicizing "The Wilton North Report" for the first six months or so. Kellner says the station chose the late November debut date so the show would not face a ratings "sweeps" period for a few months, and both expect that the show will require some time to find its identity. (The next sweeps are in February.)

"To me, late night is the best area to work in, because it is the area where you can take the most chances and the most risks," Sand says. "There are too many people watching and standing over you if you're doing prime time, and they don't give you time to develop.

"It took Letterman a couple of years (to find an audience). Late night is an acquired taste. We might have to make a lot of adjustments--forget adjustments, we might have to do major overhauls! But I'm in for it. I believe in breaking the form."

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