New faces egg on late night battle

As Parliament-Funkadelic maestro George Clinton would say, “It’s time to put a glide in your stride and a dip in yo’ hip” — “The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show” and Quincy Jones’ “Vibe” are in the house.

In fact, preliminary Nielsen rating reports show syndication’s new latenight contenders have been averaging anywhere from 3 million to 6 million TV homes between them since their much-hyped Aug. 4 debut.

“And when was the last time a black man could go into a million homes without getting arrested,” joked “Vibe” host Chris Spencer on his debut show.

Indeed, “Wayans,” from Disney’s Buena Vista TV, and “Vibe,” from Sony’s Columbia TriStar, are injecting a huge dose of hip-hop pop culture into the mainstream latenight TV mix.

Both studios are investing tens of millions of dollars in a bid to recapture the audience that made Paramount’s “Arsenio Hall” such a hit in the early 1990s. The ultimate goal is to field a fresh alternative to NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman.”

For all their similarities, “Wayans” and “Vibe” have very different styles. Wayans comes across as a laid-back, seasoned veteran who’s already known to many of his guests. Short comedy segs and audience participation in bizarre stunts are a big part of the mix.

“Vibe” moves along at a faster pace, with an emphasis on standup comedy and musical performances. Host Spencer isn’t shy about showing his exuberence for meeting A-listers like Demi Moore and Mel Gibson.

Strong starters

Both shows came out of the box strong, particularly “Wayans.” But the interest generated by heavy promotion for the premieres, timed to avoid the crush of new shows bowing in September, had tailed off some by the second week. And thus began the long, hard fight for audience share. The playing field will become even more competitive next year, when NBA legend Earvin (Magic) Johnson launches his latenight talker with Fox’s Twentieth TV.

“We are in this for the long haul,” says Barry Thurston, president of Columbia TriStar Television Distribution. “We’ve been very pleased with the ratings and the shows we’ve seen so far, but this kind of show is always going to be a work-in-progress.”

The TV spinoff of Jones and David Salzman’s fast-growing monthly music/lifestyle magazine of the same name has been in the works for more than a year. Col TriStar’s syndie arm meanwhile, had been tracking the flight of young adult viewers from the broadcast TV column in latenight over the past few years and saw great opportunity in latenight.

Thurston says the studio’s search for the right vehicle ended after their first “Vibe” pitch meeting last fall with Jones and Salzman.

Across town from CTTD’s Culver City offices, Wayans and his manager, Eric L. Gold, first traveled to the Disney lot in Burbank to pitch Buena Vista TV brass development ideas for a variety of programs. Initially, Wayans had no intention of stepping in front of the camera, but all sides quickly got excited about the prospects for a latenight talker fronted by the creator of Fox’s groundbreaking sketch comedy series “In Living Color.”

Now that the hubbub of premiere-week has settled, one clear challenge “Wayans” and “Vibe” face is bridging the gap between their performance in urban centers like New York and relatively suburban markets such as Seattle, Orlando, Fla., and Portland, Ore. In its heyday, “Arsenio Hall’s” strength was the show’s crossover appeal in TV markets small and large.

Another question syndie biz-watchers are mulling as they scrutinize the growth curve of “Wayans” and “Vibe”: Are there enough viewers and advertising dollars in the latenight TV landscape to support both? The Nielsen numbers will answer that question down the road, but for now, the distributors behind “Wayans” and “Vibe” say they are gratified by the initial response to the shows.

“The one thing we know now is that we were right on in saying that there’s an audience out there that wasn’t being served (by existing latenight fare),” says Mort Marcus, president of Buena Vista TV. “It’s an audience that wanted something new to watch really badly.”

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