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Secret Word Is ‘Cosby’ : Comedian Puts ‘Bet’ on Show’s Quick Success

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Television was still in its infancy when Groucho Marx first showed up in America’s living rooms 42 years ago, chomping cigars and casting sarcastic asides to viewers in NBC’s version of his popular radio quiz show “You Bet Your Life.”

Marx’s ribald wit--one-hour filming sessions were edited down to half-hour programs, allowing producers to cut out his more risque comments-- stood out in contrast to other shows in the 1950s, making “You Bet Your Life” a huge hit that lasted a dozen years.

Next week, Bill Cosby’s resurrected version of “You Bet Your Life” will begin rolling out in syndication across the country in a dramatically different television environment. (The show premieres Monday at 7:30 p.m. on KCBS-TV Channel 2.)

Cable television has extended its reach into 61% of the nation’s TV households, with an average of 35 to 40 basic cable channels per home. And Marx’s onetime bawdy humor is milquetoast compared to the escapades in such syndicated competition as “Studs,” “Bedroom Buddies,” “Love Connection,” “A Current Affair” and “Hard Copy.”

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“I believe that these sex, violence, mean-spirited, real-life shows are playing out,” Cosby said Thursday, referring to some of the competing programs in the so-called “access” time slot--the period that leads out of local news and into network prime time--in which his show will be airing in most of the country.

“In that time slot, if you could make a fresh situation comedy, there’s enough interest out there to make any company who can pull it off successful,” he said. “And on ‘You Bet Your Life,’ when people tell stories about their lives, that’s real situation comedy.”

Cosby, along with TV producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, who teamed up together on “The Cosby Show,” are wagering that “You Bet Your Life” will be a monumental hit out of the gate.

Although the old quiz show may not have much meaning for today’s younger viewers, the personality-driven format, they say, is perfect for Cosby’s dry, improvisational humor. And he has already carved out a permanent place in TV history as one of the medium’s most popular personalities and most powerful producers. “The Cosby Show” helped hoist NBC from third place to first in the 1980s, and has earned more than $800 million in syndicated sales.

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To people who wonder why Cosby, who annually hovers near the top of Fortune 500’s list of highest-paid entertainers, wants to do another TV series, he says: “I don’t understand. People say, OK, he’s coming off a television series and he’s very successful. But what is it that they want me to do?

“We had planned a year before (“Cosby”) was over on picking this particular series, ‘You Bet Your Life,’ and going with it. It’s a fun, fun situation to be in. And I’ve said many, many times, this is the ideal situation for any stand-up comedian.”

Whether Cosby can parlay his popularity into the kind of syndicated success that Carsey-Werner has predicted, however, is the big question. The cluttered, competitive “access” time period that they are gunning for is dominated by three long-running powerhouses: “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy!” and “Entertainment Tonight.”

Carsey-Werner has sold commercial time to advertisers on the projection that “You Bet Your Life” will achieve a 10 to 13 rating, which would catapult it into the upper echelon of syndication. In February, “Wheel of Fortune” averaged an 18.9 rating, “Jeopardy!” a 15.4 and “Entertainment Tonight” a 9.9. (Each rating point represents 921,000 households).

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“That’s not realistic. It just doesn’t happen,” said Donna Hathaway, director of syndicated services for the St. Louis agency Advanswers. She buys advertising time for corporations but has bought no time on “You Bet Your Life.”

“That’s a number that I don’t think anyone in syndication honestly believes a new show can do,” she said. “There’s too many programs out there. It would have to knock off ‘Wheel’ and ‘Jeopardy!’ right away to achieve that kind of success.”

In the Los Angeles market, Cosby literally knocked those two shows to another station. KCBS chose not to renew them when the CBS owned-and-operated stations picked up “You Bet Your Life.” Beginning Sept. 8, “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel” will move over to KABC-TV Channel 7; “Wheel” will be slotted opposite “You Bet Your Life.”

But John von Soosten, programming vice president for Katz Communications, which advises a network of 200 independent TV stations what programs to buy in syndication, believes “You Bet Your Life” can meet its ratings goals, although he concedes it will be difficult. “When you have a talent like Cosby, you’re halfway home to begin with,” he said. “Then when you put him in a proven format that’s worked in the past, the chances of success are fairly great.”

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Carsey-Werner’s confidence in the series is evident in its financial gamble. Instead of taking “You Bet Your Life” to the networks and getting them to underwrite the production, the company is footing the bill itself to make and distribute 195 episodes this season.

“In syndication we have more control of our product, and an awful lot of envy from the networks,” said Cosby, who is also involved in producing the new NBC sitcom “Here and Now,” starring Malcolm Jamal-Warner.

If “You Bet Your Life” was on a network, Cosby said, there would probably be more concern about attracting young viewers, whom advertisers like, rather than about putting on a good show.

“Eventually we will turn around and put young people on, but certainly not just to have a young face to satisfy a network, or else we might as well bring the women out in bikinis and the men out with no shirts,” Cosby said.

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“I don’t target. That’s something I think networks have a problem with. You don’t really go after young people by saying words and phrases and showing pictures that are rebellious, any more than you go after older people by being super-squeaky clean and bringing out pictures of the Virgin Mary. If you do a good show, and if it is funny, young people will find it, and they will enjoy it.”

This is Carsey-Werner’s first entry into syndication after being a dependable network supplier for many years (“Roseanne,” “A Different World”). Because Carsey-Werner is a privately held company, the financial structure of “You Bet Your Life” has been kept secret. But media analysts believe that Cosby and Carsey-Werner will essentially split show profits.

If they’re successful, the rewards are bountiful. According to last year’s annual report for syndication heavyweight King World Productions, “Wheel of Fortune,” the highest-rated show in syndication, amassed $123.7 million in revenues, “Jeopardy!” brought in $99.9 million and the queen of syndication, Oprah Winfrey, did better than $155 million with her one-hour afternoon talk show.

Because of the high ratings that Carsey-Werner has promised to deliver, it was able to sell 30-second advertising spots on “You Bet Your Life” for as much as $75,000, according to advertisers. Those prices are similar to what top-tier syndicated shows demand. But the commercial time was sold on a sliding scale: The fee, Jacobs said, will go higher or lower depending on the ratings.

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Carsey-Werner has sold 75% of the first year’s ad time, holding on to the rest in hopes that if the show is a smash, the company can sell what’s left at an even greater premium.

“For Carsey-Werner, and for Bill Cosby, they’re not answering to a network this way. They’re answering to themselves,” said Bob Jacobs, president of Carsey-Werner Distribution, which has also acquired the rights to another 1950s game show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” and is currently looking for a big-name host.

“When you have 140 stations that are running your program for a half-hour a day, five days a week, you have your own network,” Jacobs said.


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