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Latenight’s never-ending wars

ABC attempts to improve luck, knowing many tried & failed

A visit to the latenight graveyard can be mind-numbing.

Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Jimmy Breslin, Les Crane, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak, David Brenner, Alan Thicke, Chevy Chase, Arsenio Hall, Dennis Miller, Rick Dees, Keenen Ivory Wayans and even Magic Johnson, among others, have tried their hand at the fickle daypart. Some worked better than others, but none endured.

That’s what makes money machines like “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Show With David Letterman” all the more appealing.

While pundits debate ABC’s decision to sell out “Nightline” in order to make a play for David Letterman, one thing’s for certain: Nighttime gabfests like his and Jay Leno’s are steady sources of cash in a broadcast business where stability is nearly impossible to find.

“In primetime, networks have years where they’re doing well and years where they’re not doing well,” says NBC latenight chief Rick Ludwin. “But you have a reliable revenue stream when you have a successful daypart like latenight.”

At the height of Johnny Carson’s reign atop the latenight throne, his “Tonight” show brought in more revenue than any other program at NBC. Even in 2002, “The Tonight Show” commands more money for the Peacock than any show other than its dominant “Today” breakfastcast.

That’s partly because a latenight skein boasts more fixed costs. The show sticks to the same set night after night and rarely goes on location. The weeknight schedule also creates more commercial spots to sell.

Media buyers say spots on “Letterman” pull at least $10,000 more than on “Nightline.” “Letterman” costs CBS almost $90 million a year, including the star’s $30 million salary. Yet the Eye still makes $25 million more in profit. Leno pulls in more money: His show draws more than $200 million annually in ad revenue and, with lower costs, nets the Peacock a little more than $100 million in profit.

Is it any surprise, then, that ABC and Fox, which made overtures to Conan O’Brien before he signed a new megadeal at the Peacock, have attempted in recent weeks to lure established latenight hosts to their fold?

“In a business where it’s proving more and more difficult to make money in primetime, you’ve got to look at every opportunity to develop in other dayparts,” says one rival net exec. “And it helps if you’ve got a guy like Letterman.”

ABC’s desire to snag Letterman makes sense on that level. If the Alphabet truly wants to be a player in the entertainment-talker arena, it will be hard-pressed to do so without an instantly recognizable franchise host.

After all, there’s only a handful of talent out there strong enough to pull off a weeknight gabfest. Besides Leno, Letterman, O’Brien and CBS’ Craig Kilborn (and perhaps ABC’s Bill Maher, whose “Politically Incorrect” has been lost in the Letterman/”Nightline” debate), that short list includes names such as Jon Stewart. But as that roster of failed latenight talkers illustrates, no one’s a sure thing.

“Any time anyone’s come in without either being a proven latenight commodity or outside of an existing franchise, they’ve failed,” one industry vet says. “And it’s harder now than ever before to create a franchise.”

Latenight wars

Hence, this new chapter in television’s fabled latenight wars. Almost from the moment Sylvester “Pat” Weaver created the genre in 1954 with the original Steve Allen “Tonight,” ratings battles, disgruntled hosts and hardball negotiations have dominated the genre.

Jack Paar walked off his “Tonight” set over perceived network censorship. Carson called in sick more than a few times as a negotiating ploy. Permanent Carson guest-host Rivers jumped ship to take him on at Fox. Arsenio Hall said he’d kick Leno’s ass. And of course, Letterman and Leno famously battled over Johnny’s chair.

Carson dominated the daypart during his 30-year NBC run, though plenty of others tried to capture a piece of his audience. Now, Leno and Letterman have more than each other as competition.

“You’ve got reruns of ‘Seinfeld,’ which is probably the best sitcom ever,” one industry vet says. “A lot of stations have ‘Friends’ reruns, and then there’s ‘Blind Date’ and all the other date shows.”

Strong hosts are even more important as latenight shows shift the balance away from guests and more toward comedy bits. After all, by the time they hit latenight, celebs may already have appeared on “Entertainment Tonight,” “Access Hollywood,” “Live With Regis & Kelly” and a half-dozen other gabbers.

As a result, Ludwin says the first guest on “The Tonight Show” doesn’t come out until a half-hour into the show.

“We’re doing a half-hour comedy show these days,” Ludwin says. “The challenge is oftentimes not the competition, the challenge is sleep. To get them to stay up for another 10 minutes, they’re more likely to stay up for comedy.”

While Letterman’s “Late Show” remains a bastion of quirkiness, Leno’s dominant talker is a much more finely tuned ratings machine.

Producers are constantly tweaking the show’s format to respond to changing viewer habits. Every minute of the show is designed to snag maximum ratings, from the opening monologue to the closing seconds when Leno’s saying his goodbyes.

“You used to see a lot of authors on during the last part of ‘Tonight,’ ” one industry insider says. “You don’t see that anymore, because the fourth quarter-hour has to be strong: It’s the lead-in to ‘Conan.’ ”

The entry of another full-on entertainment gabber would only increase the pressure to come up with new ways to keep audiences up late.

“Every year goes by and it seems another show gets put on,” says one latenight vet. “It all gets diluted. I don’t look forward to the day when every network has a latenight show.”

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