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Night Heat: The Talk-Show Competition Sizzles : An expansion of ad revenues promises to add even more programs to the late-night TV airwaves

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It’s late. The streets are quiet. Doors are locked, teeth are brushed, the cat has been put outside for the night. Sleep beckons.

But in millions of homes across the country, Americans are shunning sleep, shunning books and magazines, perhaps even shunning their sleeping partners. People in more than 25.5 million homes, the vast majority drawn from that upscale, young-adult, consuming-crazed demographic that advertisers prize, are spending the midnight hour basking in a blue, iridescent video glow. And the networks, programmers, syndicators and advertisers are waking up to this fact in a big way.

As Arsenio Hall, one of the top guns in this war against sleep, might describe the blossoming late-night scene if it was a guest on his own show: “Johnny Carson is here tonight. Pat Sajak is here. Ted Koppel is here. David Letterman is here. Bob Costas is here. Arsenio Hall is here.” Hall’s energetic, MTV-generation, in-studio audience would then bark, “Rooof, rooof, rooof,” and collectively crank their fists in the air as Hall chanted his monologue-ending trademark, now as familiar to some late-night addicts as Carson’s golf swing: “So, let’s . . . get . . . busy!”

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The late-night television galaxy is busy. Two new stars have joined the fray so far this year and, with advertising dollars pouring in, it’s about to get even busier. ABC plans to launch its own midnight talk show by next summer, and next month, “After Hours,” a late-night syndicated magazine program from the former producers of “Eye on L.A.,” specifically designed as an alternative to the nightly talk shows, will premiere locally on KTTV Channel 11.

Statistics from the A.C. Nielsen Co. show that the number of people watching television between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. has remained relatively constant over the past two years--at about 25.5 million homes each night. But with Sajak and Hall joining Carson, Letterman and Koppel in the battle for viewers and advertisers, most of that audience--more than 18.5 million households a night--is now watching the unending parade of celebrities and news makers who troop across the talk show sets.

Advertisers are happy because these programs are luring the young, free-spending viewers they want their commercials to reach. The networks and syndicators are happy because the advertisers are paying more for shows that are relatively inexpensive to produce. And once and future talk show hosts are happy because soaring ad revenues generate more talk shows (see accompanying story).

Once upon a time, there was Johnny and only Johnny. For nearly 27 years, Carson’s “Tonight Show” has been king of late night. Would-be challengers, including Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Alan Thicke, have come and gone.

Then, in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, ABC discovered that serious-minded viewers would stay up until midnight for some in-depth analysis of the day’s top news event, and “Nightline” was born.

Exploiting “The Tonight Show’s” stranglehold on the late-night audience, NBC launched “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1982 and discovered that there was an audience that would stay up until 1:30 a.m. to watch wacky stunts, gags and insult-ridden celebrity interviews.

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Fox tried to break into the world of late night with three different shows, including one starring Joan Rivers. All three burned out like a wet match.

Looking for a way to solidify its late-night supremacy, NBC then debuted “Later With Bob Costas” (weeknights at 1:30 a.m.) last summer.

“Late night was a dormant area prior to two years ago,” said Michael Brockman, president of daytime, children’s and late-night entertainment at ABC. “It was taken for granted that NBC had a lock on the majority of the audience. ABC had been successful with ‘Nightline’ but that played to a whole different sensibility. CBS was floundering and decided that it had to do something to tap into the enormous potential that late night has.”

Brockman, who held a similar post at CBS before moving to ABC earlier this year, developed and launched “The Pat Sajak Show” on CBS last January. At the same time, Paramount retooled the one glowing element from Fox’s late-night wreckage (Arsenio Hall had had modest success as the short term successor to Joan Rivers on Fox) and debuted “The Arsenio Hall Show” in syndication all over the country.

The result: Carson, Letterman and Koppel have slipped a fraction from a year ago. Sajak is sputtering but surviving. And Hall has become a media superstar and perhaps the biggest reason why there is a new buzz of late night excitement.

Though it is difficult to compare ratings for these programs because none of them actually go head to head in the same time period all over the country, over the last seven months “The Tonight Show” has averaged a 5.5 rating, “Night-line” a 4.8 and “Letterman,” “Sajak” and “Arsenio” have all registered a 3.2 (each rating point represents 904,000 homes). But “Arsenio” has been building momentum, beating both Sajak and Letterman with an average nationwide rating of about 4 in recent months, and occasionally, in some markets on some nights, beating Carson head to head.

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But while there is some spirited competition to be the first to book certain guests, the shows claim not to be at war with one another. “Nobody is fighting anybody,” says Robert Morton, producer of “Late Night With David Letterman.” “There have always been several other shows on against us and I think they just bring more people to late night. It helps everybody out. There is no reason why you can’t have two or three shoe stores on 5th Avenue.”

Arsenio’s Audience: Young, Ethnic and Hip

“In syndication, you have to identify a specific viewer need and then go after that audience,” said Steve Goldman, executive vice president of Paramount domestic television. “It’s like marketing soap. You decide if there is a need for a specific product and then you try to fill that need. That’s what we did with ‘Arsenio.’ We identified a specific audience that wasn’t being served by the other late-night shows and went after it.”

Young, urban, ethnic and hip--and apparently waiting for a decidedly def talk show host--that audience is buying Paramount’s latest box of syndicated “soap.”

“Arsenio” is the show where viewers learn the latest lingo from the world of rap music. It is the show where Sally Kirkland and Ana Alicia ogle and then jump into the lap of their debonair host. It is the show on which the host can get away with asking Brooke Shields if she is still a virgin and author Jackie Collins can get away with grilling the host about his own sexual history. It is the show where black celebrities such as Tone Loc, Kool Moe Dee and Dave Winfield can talk with their host as if they were two black men sharing confidences in the privacy of their own back yards.

The show has caught on so fast that Paramount has already added a sixth night each week, a repeat, for stations to broadcast on the weekends. And in several markets, stations have upgraded the show to earlier time periods where it has pulled even bigger numbers. In New York, for example, WWOR recently moved the show from 12:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and it has beaten Carson several times.

Why is Hall, whose show airs locally on KCOP Channel 13 at 11 p.m., thriving in a marketplace in which so many other would-be-Johnnys have failed?

“Arsenio is the show,” said Marla Kell Brown, the program’s producer. “He is such a different talent that there was room for him in the late-night marketplace. His comedy is so different. It is more physical and has more of an edge to it. There wasn’t much on television for the young audience, especially in late night.

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“Letterman has a young audience but not as young as ours. The only shows with this kind of youth appeal were on Friday or Saturday nights or MTV. Arsenio says that it’s the kids of Johnny’s viewers who are tuning in. In one room the parents are watching Carson and in another the kids are watching us. We’re not really competing with Carson. It’s just another audience.”

“This is the audience that goes to movies and buys (records, clothes and sneakers,)” Goldman said, “and our success in reaching that audience has finally been perceived by the advertising community. At first the advertisers were skeptical. They didn’t believe we could do as well as Letterman and we had to scrounge around for sponsors. Now they are calling us. We are virtually sold out for next season, and I think it’s clear that we have brought some advertisers into late night who weren’t here before.”

Goldman said that in this blockbuster summer movie season, the studios have been spending as much advertising money on “Arsenio” as on “The Tonight Show,” even though Carson attracts at least 50% more viewers.

A Tradition-Minded Sajak Is Struggling

The story of Pat Sajak’s talk show is not so jolly, and certainly not so lucrative. Many television executives say that CBS was making more money with the hourlong action dramas it aired in the time slot before Sajak, the “Wheel of Fortune” nice guy, debuted in late night last January. Ratings for Sajak are significantly less than what the CBS dramas pulled a year ago in such markets as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Sajak, for example, registered only a 2.3 rating and a 10% share of the L.A. audience in last May’s sweeps. The previous May, CBS’ late-night dramas scored a 3.6 and a 15 share locally for the same time period.

Even the optimistic Kim LeMasters, president of CBS Entertainment, conceded that revenues for that time period are about the same. But he quickly added that, with Sajak, the network is in a potentially more profitable situation because the talk show is less expensive to produce than the action shows.

“And it is a better situation all around for CBS because Sajak creates an identification for the network,” LeMasters said. “NBC has had an advantage for a long time with Carson and Letterman, and ABC with Ted Koppel. Sajak can build that sort of identification for us.” The question is: How long can CBS endure mediocre to bad ratings in late night while everyone around them prospers?

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“Sajak,” the network’s first foray into late-night talk since Merv Griffin tried a show in 1969, opened to good ratings as the curious and his many fans from “Wheel of Fortune” tuned in to see what the show was all about. But after a couple of weeks of Carson-like numbers, the audience has been slipping--down to a recent plateau of a 3 rating each night. One week last month, the show slipped to a 2.8. Carson gets close to twice Sajak’s audience; Hall and Letterman also outdraw him and have a far more desirable demographic makeup to boot.

The CBS affiliates who carry the show are antsy. About half delay the program half an hour, rather than airing it at 11:30 p.m. when late-night audience levels are at their highest. And in some major markets, including Detroit, Cleveland and Atlanta (three of “Arsenio’s” strongholds), the CBS stations have decided not to air “The Pat Sajak Show” at all.

Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, recently warned that Sajak could be pulled from the schedule by year’s end.

When talking with a reporter about the condition of his program, Sajak maintains the same “aw shucks” attitude he presents on screen. “Our goal was to put on the best show we could, find our core audience and build from there. I think we have done that,” Sajak said. “For us to be a long success, we do have to demonstrate growth. The leveling out of our audience has happened and I don’t know if it is at a level that CBS or the affiliates will stick with. But we’re not going to make any radical changes. It’s not like we touched a hot stove and we’re backing off.

“We wanted to put on the kind of talk show that I grew up watching, Jack Paar and Carson, fairly traditional. And anyway, there are only so many cosmetic things you can do: Do I have a couch or a few chairs? Do I sit behind a desk or not? (Carson, Letterman and Sajak do, Hall doesn’t.) Most talk of doing something different deteriorates into a discussion of furniture.”

But Sajak’s contention that you can’t reinvent the talk show is why many industry observers believe his show is struggling. His program is just too much like Carson’s.

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“We wanted a durable format for the show that would last, one with no tricks,” CBS’ LeMasters said. “We weren’t going to start with barking elephants up front. But maybe we were going head-to-head too much with Carson and allowing the audience to graze through us to him. We cannot force Pat to go toe-to-toe with Carson in the monologue. It’s an unfair burden we put on him. If he is forced to compete directly against Arsenio and Johnny, it requires a certain joke level and timing that probably is not his strength. Pat is warm, intelligent, a good interviewer, but his personality goes against those rim-shot jokes.”

So changes are in the works. Sajak has already scrapped his opening monologue, and after a brief “hello,” he goes straight to his desk and brings out the guests. The show has also begun using taped pieces--something Letterman has done with great success--such as Sajak giving a wacky tour of the CBS studio to two silly tourists. And, LeMasters said, they are going to try a number of “theme” shows, such as taking the entire program to Washington, D.C., for two weeks in December, in an effort to force some attention Sajak’s way.

LeMasters insisted that despite Stringer’s warnings and affiliate skittishness, Sajak is not going to get the same sort of quick hook that struggling prime-time shows inevitably receive.

“As long as we stay around a 3 (rating), we’re OK,” LeMasters said. “If we slipped down into the low 2s, then we would have to make radical adjustments in format. We’re all neophytes when it comes to late night. And we are going to take our time and make sure that any changes we make have a long-term benefit for the show and the network.”

Carson and Letterman Leave NBC Smiling

Meanwhile, NBC, the long-reigning champion of late night, watches, worries a little, checks out its revenues and then, like Mike Tyson, proudly proclaims, “Bring ‘em on, we’ll beat all-comers.” NBC pulled in more than $200 million in ad revenues for Letterman’s and Carson’s two hours of late-night talk in 1988, according to Arbitron’s broadcast advertisers report, and even with the increased competition, NBC expects to do better this year.

“Our programs have held up,” said Bob Niles, a research and marketing executive at NBC. “Arsenio’s success doesn’t cannibalize from us. His audience doesn’t come out of our turf. In fact, I think Arsenio and Letterman actually help each other. They have a similar appeal and the fact that his show is on earlier in many markets (including Los Angeles and New York), might encourage viewers who would not have had the incentive to stay up until 12:30 a.m. to watch Arsenio and then stay up and watch Letterman.”

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Niles said that Letterman’s audience had slipped a bit last year, before “Arsenio” and “Sajak” hit the air. But the new competition has done nothing to accelerate that slippage, and this summer, Niles said, Letterman’s audience has grown back to what it had been the past several years. And that young, yuppie audience is so prized by advertisers that even though Letterman garners just over half the total audience Carson does, individual spots on the show sell for only about 25% less.

“We are basically doing what we’ve been doing for the last 7 1/2 years and paying little attention to the other shows,” said Robert Morton, producer of “Letterman.” He insists that while “Sajak” and “Arsenio” are talk shows, Letterman’s is a comedy program that often features scripted comedy sketches. Letterman’s is not the show where guests are pampered and their latest project is hawked. Letterman’s TV living room is the place where Nastassia Kinski’s funky hairdo is mercilessly ridiculed and where Shirley MacLaine and Cher are provoked into cussing out their admittedly obnoxious host.

No one from “The Tonight Show” would agree to discuss the current state of the show or the competition. Fred de Cordova, the program’s executive producer for nearly 20 years, merely typed out this statement: “ ‘The Tonight Show’ continues to put on what we hope will continue to be the most interesting guests available; the major stars of motion pictures, television and the musical world. There have been no changes in this method in all the years I have been with the show and I see no reason why any change should be made in the future, because, after all, the prime asset of ‘The Tonight Show’ sits behind the host’s desk and continues to happily keep a firm hold on the public’s interest and its sense of humor.”

The consensus among those involved in late-night television is that no matter how hot Arsenio Hall gets, no matter how many stories are written about Hall, Sajak, Letterman or any new challenger, Johnny Carson will be king for as long as he continues to host his show. This October, Carson will celebrate 27 years behind “The Tonight Show” desk. There is nothing to suggest that he plans to give it up any time soon.

Viewing Late Night Through a Crystal Ball

As for the future of late-night talk. . . .

Jay Leno, who hosts “The Tonight Show” one night a week, is ready to take over on the day Carson decides to retire. More immediately, ABC will roll out its own talk show, to follow “Nightline,” sometime next year. ABC’s Brockman said it will be a “personality-driven” program (read: it will have a host just like all the others) that will attempt to woo the prized young-adult audience.

ABC had tested a late-night show called “Days End” for two months earlier this year on several of its stations, including KABC Channel 7 in Los Angeles. The show was designed as a companion to “Nightline” with both serious and lighthearted commentary and interviews about the day’s current events. It flopped, and Brockman dumped the experiment.

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“The young-adult audience is the most available and most salable at that time of night,” Brockman said, “and the way to win them over is with a compelling, stimulating program that is driven by a compelling and exciting personality. The profile of the ABC network shows a healthy mix of that young-adult audience, so if we can find the right kind of personality for them, we will have the air time (in prime time) to promote the personality and a good chance of getting that audience to carry over into late night.”

He said that ABC will test several ideas over the next several months before finally settling on a host and a specific format around the beginning of the year.

“We will certainly have to come up with something that differentiates us from all the competition,” Brockman said. “It will be a tough battle. ABC has tried valiantly and struggled in this time period for years. But I believe there is still a large, untapped audience out there that will enable several more shows to thrive.”

No one knows how many shows can survive in the current late-night environment. Just a year ago, many would have said there was room for only Carson and Letterman. Now programmers and advertisers are singing a different tune. Just two weeks ago, Fox began distributing its late-night Saturday stand-up comedy show, “Comic Strip Live,” to all of its affiliates nationwide. Dennis Wholey has his own “intimate” call-in talk show, “LateNight America,” on 147 public television stations, including KCET Channel 28, Saturdays at midnight. Byron Allen, formerly the co-host of “Real People,” will debut his own Saturday-night talk show in syndication next month. And KNBC weatherman Fritz Coleman will get his own show next month too. Even with the odds stacked against them, everyone, it seems, wants in on the act. And why not? It’s a great gig if you can get it. Just ask the beleaguered Pat Sajak.

“It’s only television, and there is no firing squad standing by in case you fail,” Sajak deadpanned. “And it sure beats loading trucks for a living. I get to come out and sit behind a desk and people I respect and admire come out and call me Pat. It’s pretty neat. I recommend that everyone get their own talk show. And if things continue as they’re going, soon everyone will.”

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