Late-night slugfest looms on TV horizon

The battle of the late-night talk shows is over.

The war has just begun.

David Letterman and Jay Leno have temporarily retired from the fray, secure in their NBC enclaves, each to contemplate the gold-plated sincerity of the networks to which they have committed themselves for the next several years.

Sometime this fall, the on-air war will resume in earnest, with Letterman on CBS, Leno’s “The Tonight Show” on NBC, “The Arsenio Hall Show” and “Whoopi!” in syndication, and the new Chevy Chase talk show on Fox. Not to mention ABC’s “Nightline” and the syndicated terror, Rush Limbaugh.

Conservative commentator Limbaugh could, in fact, be one of the spoilers in the clash of the comedians. Launched just last fall, “Rush” has been getting a 3 rating, which is better than many daytime talk shows.

It also places the show in the No. 3 late-night spot behind leader “Nightline” and the second-placed “The Tonight Show,” and ahead of Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg, Hall and CBS’ “crime-time” shows.

The financial pages have been filled with speculation about how many CBS affiliates will make room for Letterman at the 11:30 p.m. spot he coveted enough to leave NBC.

CBS will pay the comic a reported $ 42 million over the next three years for the chance to offer him that timeslot on its 200-odd affiliates.

The problem is that since CBS lacks a tradition of solid late-night network programming, many affiliates have solved their own problems by profitably scheduling such shows as “Cheers,” following the late news.

Further complicating things is that several CBS affiliates carry “Arsenio,” which is also carried by Fox stations, which themselves face a dilemma when Fox’s Chevy Chase show comes along. Strategists andsalesmen will be fighting a cold war long before the on-screen fight heats up.

NBC’s protracted decision-making over the Letterman/Leno tangle certainly drew attention to late-night TV. “Isn’t there something going on in the Gulf?” Leno asked, while Letterman commented that if he’d been on NBC’s side he’d have tired of the situation months ago.

Meanwhile, the folks at the competition–“Arsenio,” now in its fifth season; and the embryonic Chevy Chase show–carry on with business.

Marla Kell Brown, “Arsenio” executive producer, says that as far as her day-to-day routine went, the NBC fuss hardly affected her at all.

“You read the articles and see what’s going on,” she says. “But as far as putting the show together, what we do on the show, and who we book, it really hasn’t had an impact.”

When Arsenio went on the air, Johnny Carson still ruled late night on “The Tonight Show,” and Hall wisely said he wasn’t trying to compete with that show, he wanted Johnny’s fans’ kids.

“Right,” says Brown. “That’s still the show, whether you say it’s 18 to 34, or call it the MTV generation. Its the people who buy records and concert tickets and go to the movies. We haven’t changed our focus at all.”

Before Letterman’s departure from NBC became an issue, Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” had made headlines with a heated fracas over booking celebrities on the show. It led last year to the departure of Helen Kushnick, the show’s executive producer and Leno’s longtime manager.

Leno said on the air that he had no interest in a booking war and Marla Kell Brown says that there’s been a return to the normal late-night competition for guests.

She says “Arsenio” has no hard-and-fast rules about booking, even about getting people on ahead of the other shows. “We’ve always felt that we do a different interviewhere, than you’re going to see any place else,” she says. “Even if they do Letterman or Leno first, we take a lot of guests anyway because we figure Arsenio’s going to get something out of them that those guys don’t get.”

Brown admits that there are some celebrities she’d want to have on first, but with others it doesn’t really matter. “If it’s someone coming on just to show a clip and plug a movie and they’re the same thing on all the shows, then you don’t want that,” she says. “But if it’s someone interesting whom we feel we could get a different side to, then we’ll go second.”

As to the effect of the Letterman move, Brown says it’s too early to tell, although she notes that “Arsenio” appears at different times on various stations , from 11 p.m. thro-ough 12.30 a.m.

“It’ll be market-by-market as to how it will affect us,” Brown says. “We have contracts with the stations and a lot of them don’t want to switch us, (we’re) places where we’re doing great.”

Mention the Chevy Chase show, and Brown shakes her head. “I hear people asking about that and my feeling is, ‘What show?’ There is no Chevy Chase show.”

“It takes so long from signing a talent to launching a show and building an audience,” Brown says. “You hear a lot of people speculate on what it’s going to be and what it’s not going to be. I’ve never seen Chevy Chase as a talk-show host. I don’t know what that show is. I don’t know how well it’s going to do. So as far as that goes, to me it’s really up in the air.”

She took the words right out of Steve Binder’s mouth. He is executive producer of what will be Chase’s show and by late January, he still hadn’t checked into the Fox lot.

“Everything is up in the air,” he says. “All we know is that we’re going forward and Chevy is 100 percent-plus committed.” Binder, who is Diana Ross’ producer, also produced Steve Allen’s Westinghouse show and the 1968 Elvis comeback special among other things. He says his yardstick for Chase’s show is the old Steve Allen show.

“The No. 1 goal–the No. 1 priority of the show will be comedy,” Binder says. “As funny as Letterman is, as funny as anybody who’s been in that spot, it’s really the building block on which to work off of. Chevy certainly has a track record in comedy that almost stands alone.”

Binder says he’s not concerned about using a format that’s been done in the past or variations on the theme. “Anything that works, that is funny is something we’re gonna go for,” he says. “We don’t want to be labeled. We’re in the embryonic stage of conceiving what the show is. We want to create an environment where anything goes.”

Binder says all the talk of late-night competition just makes life exciting. “It stimulates the creative juices,” he says. “The more competition the merrier, as far as we’re concerned. We’re not going to pay attention to who we’re competing with or against. We’re determined to do the best show possible and let the chips fall where they may.”

With Letterman apparently undecided about possibly moving his CBS show to Los Angeles, it remains to be seen if all four contestants in the late-night comedy wars will be located here.

Ed McMahon, who was Carson’s sidekick for 30 years on “The Tonight Show,” recalls the debate when that show contemplated a similar move early in the show’s run. “People said, ‘Oh, Los Angeles, you’ll get lethargic and sit around the pool.’ I didn’t notice any change,” McMahon recalls.

“Johnny liked it out here because the facilities were better.” And bigger. McMahon recalls a car being sawed in half so it could be taken up to NBC’s Studio 6B in New York for him to do a live commercial.

“I know Letterman has expressed a desire in the press it’s been said, that he’d like to come out here. I don’t see any reason that he can’t–if he wants to.”

The only trouble could be that the curmudgeonly comic might not find Los Angeles annoying enough for his humor. He already faces the problem of not having NBC to rant about.

As movie critic Roger Ebert asked him on the show, “Is six months long enough to work up a steam of hatred for CBS?”

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