The young audiences of the two new late-night talk shows, "Vibe" and "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show," give standing ovations and whoop wildly at the beginning of the programs.
But more than two months after the debuts of the two syndicated, urban-flavored shows, TV insiders say neither has much to cheer about.
Although they started out strong, both have generated lackluster national ratings since their Aug. 4 premieres. "Keenen" is averaging 2.3 million viewers a night while "Vibe" averages 2 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. The combined viewership for both shows only equals that of CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman," which itself trails NBC's top-ranked "The Tonight Show."
And even though "Vibe" and "Keenen," which go head-to-head here at 11 p.m., have attracted large African American audiences, particularly in big cities, they have failed thus far to draw a large enough cross-section of viewers to ensure long-term success.
"People expected that both shows would come out of the gate strong, and they did," said Jeff Flathers, market analyst for Paul Kagan Associates, a media research firm. "But in the last few weeks, they have fallen off considerably. I'm not saying it's impossible for them both to survive, but the trend is not favorable."
Bill Carroll, vice president of programming for the Katz Television Group, a consulting firm for local stations, added, "Everyone hoped that one of these shows might be the next 'Arsenio Hall.' But neither has reached that potential."
"Keenen" has been moved back half an hour in several major cities, including Boston, Detroit and Houston, although the show's producers say the changes are a result of "strategic planning" by local stations and not because of the show's performance. Downgrades of time periods for "Vibe" also have been hinted at.
The two shows have not impacted the ratings of the veteran late-night talk shows, NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and CBS' "Letterman."
Casting even more of a cloud over the shows is the imminent arrival of "The Magic Hour," a talk show from Twentieth Television with former basketball star Magic Johnson. A decision on whether Fox will use the midseason show in its late-night lineup or will syndicate the program will be made within weeks. Putting it on the Fox network would drastically affect "Keenen," which airs mostly on Fox stations around the country, including KTTV-TV Channel 11 locally.
Despite the rumblings that one or both shows may not survive, executives at Buena Vista Television, which produces "Keenen," and Columbia/TriStar Television Distribution, which produces "Vibe," said they remain committed to the programs and that they are generally pleased with their direction.
"Obviously, while the ratings aren't what we would want, our awareness levels among our core audience is terrific," said David Mumford, executive vice president of planning and operations at Columbia/TriStar. "Our advertising barter people are very pleased with being able to put spots on the show. We're proving to be an alternative to other late-night shows."
On the creative side, "Vibe," seen locally on KCOP-TV Channel 13, will start to strengthen its comedy element with a troupe of performers called Vibe Tribe.
As for rumors that host Chris Spencer may be leaving, Russ Krasnoff, executive vice president of programming for Columbia/TriStar, said, "Chris is relatively new to television. He has grown incredibly since the beginning, and audiences continue to find that he is likable. We think he's doing a fine job. We're not replacing him."
Mort Marcus, president of Buena Vista Television, said: "These shows take a little while to build, but 'Keenen' has been showing growth from September to October, particularly in the Fox markets. We feel optimistic that it has a chance to be a long-term player."