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‘Maher’ makes gains in latenight slots

The proven track record of “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher,” after three seasons on Comedy Central has helped ABC win its best clearance yet for new latenight programming.

The humorous talkshow, which has Maher moderating a discussion among four panelists concerning the day’s news events, will be carried by 215 ABC affils representing 95% of U.S. households. About 160 stations, reaching 65% of the country, will air the program in the preferred post-“Nightline” timeslot at midnight (ET/PT) beginning Jan. 6.

“Latenight is so hard to try to start a new format with,” said Ted Harbert, chairman of ABC Entertainment, who inked the deal with producer Brillstein-Grey Entertainment that brought Maher to the Alphabet web.

“Frankly, there isn’t much motivation for our affiliates to take the show … unless we have something of real strength and quality,” he said, as the affils give up a half-hour of syndicated programming and its ad inventory.

Harbert promised no changes that would hurt the “alchemy” of the talker, to be taped at 6 p.m. daily in Los Angeles, but exec producer Scott Carter said, “ABC will give us greater access to a wider range of (guests).” The opener has political and speaking-circuit maven G. Gordon Liddy and rapper Coolio, while Charlton Heston, Garry Shandling, Dennis Miller and Malcolm McDowell have committed for other January installments.

But Maher doubts he’ll set up a booking war with latenight rivals Jay Leno and David Letterman, known to have feuded over coveted celebs.

“I’m hoping that, because it’s a different kind of show, we won’t be subject to the same kind of problems,” he said.

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