TV Talk Shows Going. . .and Comming. . . : Pat Sajak and Arsenio Hall Enter the Nighttime Fray

Times Staff Writer

Johnny Carson and David Letterman made it. But not Alan Thicke, Joan Rivers, Paul Robins and Phil Cowan, et al. The late-night TV arena and trivia books are littered with the bodies of Carson challengers, but that hasn’t stopped Pat Sajak and Arsenio Hall. This month they plunge into the highly competitive time slot after the 11 o’clock news. (Answer to trivia question No. 1: Robins and Cowan hosted the late “The Wilton North Report” on Fox Broadcasting.)

Both Sajak, congenial host of “Wheel of Fortune,” America’s favorite game show, and Hall, who broke into late night last year as a guest host on Fox’s now-defunct “Late Show,” plan to avoid direct competition with the mighty Carson “Tonight Show.” Both say they’ll try to provide something completely different.

Marla Kell Brown, producer of “The Arsenio Hall Show” points out that competition in late-night television is somewhat different from that during other “dayparts,” as the networks dub the different time periods.

In prime time, for example, the competition is the other networks. In late night, “your biggest competition is sleep,” said Brown, who worked with Hall during his “Late Show” stint after Joan Rivers’ ouster.


Sajak, who makes his CBS late-night debut next Monday at 11:30 p.m. with the appropriately titled “Pat Sajak Show,” and Hall, whose syndicated “Arsenio Hall Show” premieres Tuesday at 11 p.m. on KCOP Channel 13 in Los Angeles, say they don’t plan to unseat NBC’s Carson and Letterman, ABC’s “Nightline” or even go head-to-head with each other.

They just want to find their own audience among the available pool of late-night viewers and keep them from falling asleep over their bedtime snacks.

“We’re not going to worry about Arsenio; we’re not going to worry about Carson and ‘Nightline,’ either. We just have to do what feels best for Pat,” insisted Sajak producer Paul Gilbert in a recent conversation at CBS, where the network spent between $4 million and $5 million constructing a new sound stage and other facilities for “The Pat Sajak Show,” the network’s first late-night effort since 1972, when it canceled Merv Griffin’s show.

Ask the people behind “The Arsenio Hall Show” whether they’re drawing up battle plans and they give the same answer. “Hopefully there’s enough room for everybody,” said Frank Kelly, senior vice president of programming at Paramount Television, where the show is produced.

Said Hall: “I think people place too much emphasis on the competition; I’m running my own race. It’s a personal best, it’s me against me. I’m on after Sajak in Chicago (the show airs at various times in different cities) so I want him to do well.”

Well, maybe there’s just a little competitive sentiment. “The demographic that knows Sajak from daytime TV is people who should be asleep (at 11:30). His people are asleep ,” Hall noted smugly in an interview at his office at Paramount. “He probably would do well with a morning talk show. That’s what I would have done with him if I were a CBS executive.”

The Carson camp refused comment on their new competitors. But Robert Morton, producer of “Late Night With David Letterman,” said there’s truth in the notion that dissimilar late-night shows pose little threat to one another.

“I think we’d be crazy not to care that they’re out there,” Morton said. "(But) there are some shows that, when they’re faced with severe competition, are in an out-and-out battle--witness the morning shows, how many different ones CBS has tried. I don’t think it’s that intense with the late-night shows.

“In fact, we’ve had Pat Sajak on ‘Letterman,’ talking about ‘The Pat Sajak Show,’ There is, of course, a competitive spirit. But on the other hand, I think he’ll bring another audience to late night--his daytime viewers. That can only be helpful to late night. (If) they like his show, maybe they’ll turn to our show.”

Unlike Sajak, however, Hall has not been a guest on “Letterman.” “I was booked (on the show), and then, the day of the announcement that I was going to have my own show, they canceled me,” Hall said. “At first I wasn’t upset about it, because this is war. Then I heard that Sajak was on the show. Maybe they don’t consider Sajak competition . . . .”

Producer Morton denies playing favorites. “We don’t care about competing shows as far as booking--we have guests from the other networks all the time,” he said huffily. He acknowledged, however, that Hall was originally booked for one “Letterman” date, which Hall himself canceled because he had a schedule conflict. The only other date Hall had available was nixed because it fell too close to the debut date of “The Arsenio Hall Show.” “We just thought it would looked a little strange to have him one place, and then another right away,” Morton countered.

Whether or not Hall and Sajak are deliberately competing--or which one gets an on-air audience with David Letterman--the pair have definitely assigned themselves a difficult task: trying to be different from each other and the rest of the pack without really breaking any of the comfortable late-night conventions that have made Jack Paar, Carson, Letterman and others bright stars long after the moon comes up over Television Land.

And now, he-e-e-re’s Pat and Arsenio. . . .

Pat Sajak. (Caucasian male, 42, “Wheel of Fortune” host. Weatherman for Los Angeles’ KNBC-TV 1977-81 and prior to that at WSMV-TV in Nashville.)

Network: CBS.

Time: 11:30 p.m. Running Time: 90 minutes.

Sidekick: Yes (Dan Miller, former news anchor and Sajak colleague in Nashville; briefly held an anchor position at Los Angeles’ KCBS-TV in 1986, but was fired following a messy management coup at the station).

Studio Orchestra: Yes (The Tom Scott Band, all-male, jazz-rock-fusion).

Desk for the host: Yes.

Style: Neo-Jack Paar. Broad demographic appeal. Guests ranging from show-biz superstars to political figures, authors, scientists and the man- or woman-in-the-street. Sajak, who worshiped Paar as pre-Carson host of “The Tonight Show” while a child growing up in Chicago, hopes to bring back the good old days of late-night talk--when guests were entertaining, conversation was gracious and nobody ever broke the host’s nose by throwing a chair at him.

At first, the producers of the “Pat Sajak Show” considered a radical move: Instead of seating guests on the left side of Sajak’s desk--the way Johnny Carson does on “The Tonight Show"--Sajak’s people wanted to put guests on the right side, just to make things a little different.

They decided against it. “I swear, it was like looking into a mirror, we’re so used to seeing it the other way,” said Sajak. “It just looked weird .”

Weird is the last thing “The Pat Sajak Show” wants to be. It enters late-night TV with the philosophy that the traditional talk-show format is not broken and needs no fixing.

Although the show’s producers seek to minimize Sajak’s identification with “Wheel of Fortune,” the new Pat Sajak will basically be the old Pat Sajak. Coordinating producer David Williger said any image changes will be subtle, if detectable. Sajak usually wears double-breasted suitcoats and a pocket handkerchief on “Wheel.” On “Sajak,” he will wear mostly single-breasted coats sans handkerchief.

Mike Mischler, CBS vice president of advertising promotions, described the show’s promotional campaign as equally low-key to avoid what he calls “anticipointment"--or unrealistic viewer expectations. “The problem with that is, they watch the first night and they never come back again,” he said. “That’s why ‘Thicke of the Night’ failed; they trumpeted the Second Coming, and there was no Second Coming.”

Sajak considered the idea of having no sidekick. He considered the idea of having a woman sidekick--but after years on “Wheel” opposite Vanna White, decided that viewers might find another woman disconcerting, “as though Vanna and I had gotten a divorce or something” (although Sajak will be replaced on the daytime “Wheel of Fortune” by ex-football star Rolf Benirschke, he will continue to host the night-time show).

Sajak also thought the good-natured ribbing between male host and female sidekick might be misconstrued: “If I’m needling some guy, it’s two guys having fun--but if I’m needling a woman, I’m a cad, and if she’s needling me, she’s a bitch,” Sajak said. Eventually he settled on old friend Dan Miller, a quintessential authoritative newscaster whose towering height and rich Nashville-tinged voice provides vivid contrast to Sajak’s elfin charm and quick wit.

Sajak said the show will make ample use of CBS’ location in the Fairfax district, conducting live interviews from the studio via microwave link-ups with the locals, from melon merchants at Farmer’s Market to the punks of Melrose Avenue. The producers have purchased a helicopter to pay impromptu visits to earthquake sites and other areas of note. Sajak plans to do for CBS Television City what Carson did for beautiful downtown Burbank. And Steve Allen once did for Hollywood.

Although “Sajak” producers eventually hope to develop their own signature bits along the lines of Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks,” Sajak plans to keep his show traditional--even returning to the 90-minute format earlier used by Paar and Carson to allow guests enough time to develop a conversation.

“I was at Jack Paar’s house a couple of weeks ago, and we watched some of his old shows,” Sajak said. “You can’t do it quite the same way anymore--things have changed, attention spans have shortened. But you can get a little of that flavor. The one thing we did not do was say, ‘What can we do to break new ground, what can we do to be radical?’ This format has been working in one form or another for 35 years.”

Host: Arsenio Hall. (Black male, 30, most popular guest host of Fox Broadcasting’s “Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” following Rivers’ ouster. Turned down regular hosting position on “Late Show” to pursue movie career; most recently starred with best friend Eddie Murphy in the box-office hit “Coming to America.”)

Network: Syndicated.

Time: In Los Angeles, 11 p.m. on KCOP Channel 13.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

Sidekick: No.

Studio Orchestra: Yes (Hall describes the band as unusual because it features women: “I have a sexy lady on drums, I have a sexy lady on keyboard” . . . ).

Desk: Absolutely not.

Style: Hall plans to create the hipness of Letterman without his hard-edged cynicism. Hall describes himself as just a star-struck boy from Cleveland beneath all the Hollywood glitter. Although guests will be wide-ranging, as on “Sajak,” Hall expects his show to have a slightly younger demographic appeal due to his own freewheeling, desk-less approach to interviewing. Hall boldly calls himself “The Martin Luther King of comedy,” and plans to eliminate racism and sexism from late-night TV by making sure minorities and women appear on the show. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t have a talk show. I am their talk show.”

Hall will make two concessions to late-night TV tradition: (a) he will call his show “The Arsenio Hall Show,” and (b) the announcer will be male. Paramount audience research showed that people did not find a female announcer’s voice “authoritative” enough.

And the title? It just seemed to fit. “We had guys here (at Paramount) who make $300,000 a year saying: ‘How about “The Arsenio Hall Show?” ’ " Hall said with a chuckle. “But ‘Arsenio Hall After Dark’ sounded sleazy. And I thought of ‘Arsenio,’ ” but they said: ‘You’re not Cher, pal.”

Beyond that, Hall plans to shake up the format. Talking to his guests without the barrier of a desk, Hall said he will try for spontaneity with both guests and audience. “I just like to wing it,” he said in a conversation at his ultra-modern Paramount office, with a big-screen music video throbbing in the background. “I’m a comedian, I come from the clubs. I know how to work an audience.”

Despite his youthful following, Hall will eschew leather jackets and jeans for stylish suits and a more sophisticated look to broaden his audience. Nor does he plan to limit his guest list to youth-appeal acts. “I’d love to talk to Ronald Reagan,” he offered. “There isn’t anyone who I would consider too old and square. I’d love to do Bette Davis, I’d love to talk to Wayne Newton.”

Producer Brown noted that publicists for some of Hollywood’s less-than-hip stars have begun seeking out the show because they believe Hall can bring out “a lighter side to the client” than other hosts.

Meanwhile, as both host and producer will tell you, Arsenio will do nothing but concentrate on being Arsenio. “I honestly think Joan’s (Rivers) failure was based on the fact that they tried to change Joan, they tried to tone her down,” Hall said. “I have to be Arsenio. I’m the best Arsenio there is.”

“Sajak” head writer Monty Aidem believes that Sajak and Hall, both nice guys from the Midwest, have just the right non-abrasive quality and ability to draw out other people--rather than simply go for a joke--that makes viewers want to welcome them into their homes on a nightly basis.

“All of the very successful talk-show hosts are Midwestern people, just like Pat,” mused Aidem, veteran of “The Tonight Show,” “Thicke of The Night,” and Fox’s “Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.” “That includes Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and, gee, Dick Cavett, too.

“Those people wear well, you don’t get tired of them quickly. It’s a real solid base to come from.”