There have been some staff changes of late on the late-night "The Dennis Miller Show."
"Everybody's gone," Miller said from his office Monday. "I'm a complete psycho. I'm like Kurtz. There's heads strewn across the stairway."
He was kidding, of course, brandishing some of the obscure humor that has made Miller's syndicated talk show popular among men 18 to 34, despite remaining a low-rated enigma to larger audiences. (Kurtz was the mad Army colonel played by Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now.")
But "Miller," which debuted Jan. 20 and airs locally on KTLA Channel 5 weeknights at 11:30, has been experiencing some shake-ups. "The atmosphere here is tense," one production source said. "Communications are really screwed up."
In the past month, the program has replaced producer Ken Ehrlich and musical director Andy Summers while adding three new writers, led by SCTV comedy veteran Dave Thomas. Just exactly what all the changes will amount to, though, depends upon whom you talk to at the show:
"We're trying to broaden the comedy a little," said Miller, who is also an executive producer.
"Dennis' personality is the strong point of the show, and that's what we're going to focus more on," said Donald Hacker, president of Tribune Entertainment Co., which produces "Miller."
"We're not changing anything. I think we're just going to continue doing the show we're doing. We're perfectly happy with it," said executive producer Brad Grey.
All three, however, concur that despite soft ratings, "Miller" will remain on the air at least through the summer to give the show a fighting chance after Johnny Carson vacates his late-night throne in May.
"That has been our plan, to gear up here as we get into the summer months," Hacker said. "You have Carson retiring. But more importantly for us, there will be a flux of young kids coming home from college. If you track 'Arsenio,' you see the summer months are much stronger than the winter."
Since the show's premiere in January, Miller has received mixed critical reaction--praised for his wit but panned for his skills as an interviewer. Tribune research has found that viewers tune in to the show primarily to see Miller and not his guests. In fact, unless there's a big-name guest on tap, Miller's ratings generally fall off after the first quarter-hour that features his monologue.
The new and improved "Miller," according to sources, will concentrate more on the edgy host and his unusual brand of humor throughout the course of the hour. "Our emphasis is to make the show less guest-intensive," Hacker said, "and most importantly to exploit the comedy elements of Dennis himself."
Hacker added that the shift will be subtle, appearing gradually over the coming weeks.
The first sign of unrest on "Miller" occurred during the February ratings sweeps when Summers, a former band member of the Police, left the show because the daily grind was too much. He was replaced by David Goldblatt, musical director for Diana Ross' 1989 world tour. Summers, who wrote "Miller's" theme song, reportedly had a musical vision for the show that differed from Tribune's original concept of traditional rock 'n' roll. Goldblatt's mandate was to integrate more music into the program, and he started by adding a horn player and guitarist to the house band.
Then Dave Thomas, perhaps best known as one of the McKenzie Brothers (with Rick Moranis) from "SCTV," was hired three weeks ago as a "comedy mechanic," as one staffer put it. The program's writers up to that point were mostly comics and not TV comedy writers.
"Dave is here to open up the comedy a little," Miller said. "They're looking for ways to get me off the desk and out in the crowd. We'd like to do a '90s version of what Carson does, Stump the Band, or Dave (Letterman) and his Brush With Greatness."
Finally, Hacker brought in producer Laurence Ferber last week to unite the staff on a common front. Two years ago, Ferber took over as executive producer of Tribune's "The Joan Rivers Show," which was floundering among the afternoon talk shows without an identity. Under Ferber's guidance, "Rivers" has experienced dramatic ratings growth.
"Larry focused the direction of the show around Joan rather than stick her into a format that was someone else's creation," Hacker said. "His knack of being able to produce the sensibilities of the talent is exactly what we're trying to achieve here with Dennis."
Ehrlich, whom Ferber replaced, has produced many musical specials, including the Grammy Awards for 11 years. He will remain with "Miller" as a musical consultant.
"We constantly do testing to determine the direction of the show," Hacker said, defending the changes as normal operating procedure. "These kind of shows evolve, they just don't spring on the scene. In my experience, you have different producers to accomplish different tasks as a show evolves through various stages."
So far, Miller has not been able to keep pace with his syndicated counterpart, Arsenio Hall. In his first five weeks on the air, "Miller" has averaged a 1.8 rating nationally, according to the A.C. Nielsen Co., or about 1.6 million homes a night. "Arsenio" averaged a 3.4 over that same period.
"The ratings are somewhat disappointing," said Vicki Kline, senior vice president of national broadcast for DeWitt Media in New York, who buys advertising time on syndicated programs. "Obviously it's a very low number. 'Arsenio' started out much higher when he premiered, between a 3 and a 3.5. A 2 is pretty much the acceptable minimum for any long-term survival."
During the February sweeps, "Miller" did creep up nationally and even edged "Arsenio" in Los Angeles. Tribune hopes to achieve between a 2 and 2.5 national rating by June, and maintains that "Miller" is doing fine right now because advertisers are attracted to the show's strong demographics. The program skews heavily toward young men, who constitute the largest number of available viewers in the late-night time period.
Kline confirmed that "Miller" is a bonus for advertisers. But she questioned how good it is for Tribune, which has lowered ad prices, she said, after the show failed to live up to original estimates.
"They're selling it at very favorable prices," Kline said. "The ratings do not warrant a significant premium. You can basically write your own ticket--your own price--for it."
Stations across the country that broadcast "Miller" consist largely of lower-rated Fox affiliates and independents. Most of those stations are bound by a 52-week contract to stay with "Miller" unless Tribune decides to pull the plug early, although stations generally do have the option to bump a show into the wee hours if it doesn't perform up to expectations after a set period of time, usually 13 weeks or so.
"We don't think of our shows in terms of some kind of death period," Hacker said. "We're starting our fourth season with Joan and that show took two years to get off the ground. I'd rather think of this as a business. You don't put up a time when you will get out of business. You look for the things that are positive and improve on them."