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Canceling Chevy Helps Fox Cut to the Chase : Television: Network officials say the move spares it and its star the embarrassment of entering the November sweeps in a no-win situation. The failure marks a costly setback for Fox.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fox’s abrupt decision to cancel the troubled “The Chevy Chase Show” came out of a desire to save Chase and the network further embarrassment from critical blasts, celebrities who didn’t want to go on the low-rated program and declining viewer interest, Fox officials said Monday.

Fox Broadcasting Co. chairman Lucie Salhany said that even though the move to pull the plug on the 39-day-old show seemed sudden, “everyone had seen the handwriting on the wall. We couldn’t get guests. The audience was so turned off by the first three weeks of the program that the audience did not see or didn’t accept any improvement in Chevy.”

Less than two weeks ago, Salhany said she recognized the problems and brought in an emergency team of writers and consultants to try to save the show. She also pledged a commitment to Chase not to pull the rug out from under him.

“Chevy was getting better, but there wasn’t even a blip of improvement in the ratings,” she explained Monday. “It just continued to drop. That just put more pressure on Chevy. Chevy is a star, and he has a career. We had said we can’t let this go on forever. This is what’s best for everyone--him, us, our affiliates.”

Chase, who could not be reached for comment Monday, was given the word last Friday; Fox delayed a public announcement until Sunday, saying the 11 p.m. slot would be taken over for now by reruns of “In Living Color” while executives look for a permanent replacement.

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Greg Meidel, president of Twentieth Television, said that Fox wanted to end the show before the beginning of the November ratings sweeps, one of four periods a year in which the audience for every TV station in the country is measured. The ratings are then used to help set advertising rates.

“We had to set up trade ads in the press during the sweeps, and ‘The Chevy Chase Show’ was not reaching a pinnacle at a time it was critical,” said Meidel. “Chevy is a big star and we didn’t want to put him through the November sweeps in a no-win situation. It wasn’t fair to Chevy. It was as important to do it for Chevy’s sake as it was for Twentieth Television and Fox Broadcasting.”

Chase’s show was the first fatality in the frantic late-night talk-show war that pitted him against David Letterman on CBS, Jay Leno on NBC and Arsenio Hall in syndication. It also marked the third failure for Fox in late-night programming after “The Late Show With Joan Rivers” and “The Wilton North Report.”

Chase had attracted 5.4 million households for his first telecast Sept. 7, narrowly beating out Letterman and Leno, but the ratings declined thereafter and most recently was drawing only half the audience that had been promised to advertisers.

The caliber of guests had also lessened. Perry King, who was promoting a made-for-TV movie, and Jim Varney, star of the new “The Beverly Hillbillies,” were among last week’s leading guests. Guests who had been booked for the next two weeks included Pam Dawber, comedian Rick Overton, country singer Tracy Byrd, “female high school football player” Tammy Overstreet and “real-life ghost-buster” Peter Aykroyd.

The failure of “The Chevy Chase Show” marks a severe setback for Fox, which had aggressively promoted the show before its premiere as a hip alternative to the traditional late-night fare. The network will pay heavily--reports of Chase’s salary ranged from $3 million to $4.5 million a year on a two-year contract--and advertisers will have to be given free “make-good” spots on other programs. Fox’s lease on the old Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, which underwent a multimillion-dollar transformation and was renamed the Chevy Chase Theatre--runs through the end of the year.

Despite about a year to get ready, Salhany said Chase and his associates got off on the wrong foot and never fully recovered.

“Yes, they had a year to get ready, but the minute the camera went on the first night, it was clear that Chevy was very nervous,” she said. “You can never prepare anyone for the moment when they realize how difficult the job is. The pressure was enormous.”

Meidel said, “That part of the show was so new for Chevy. He felt very constrained by the format of the show. The show had some unique comedic aspects, but you can’t do these taped pieces day after day and still put on a talk show. It required a different talent than what Chevy was doing in his acting career.”

Salhany and Meidel said the network is committed to putting together a successful late-night program. Salhany said he has had discussions with several producers, but declined to be more specific.

She added that she did not want to put a timetable on finding a replacement for Chase, “because then everyone’s watching and the clock is ticking.”

Meidel agreed that Chase’s failure “is a major disappointment, but that’s part of being in the television business. Fox has far more successes than failures. We still have a future in late-night, and we’ll look for a show that complements the Fox network in terms of being on the cutting edge, with an attitude.”


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