Lopez, Sykes and Mo’Nique vie for young, ethnic auds

The latenight landscape has seen plenty of changes in the past few months. Or has it?

“There’s only one way to say it: Latenight TV is all white,” says George Lopez, who bows his 11 p.m. yakker, “Lopez Tonight,” Nov. 9 on TBS. “Unfortunately, for most people, their only interaction with a Latino is in the service industry. I want to change that.”

Lopez is not the only one leading the minority charge. Wanda Sykes hosts a Saturday night talkshow on Fox beginning Nov. 7 and Mo’Nique — currently in the Oscar race for “Precious” — is already drawing auds for her chatfest on BET that began Oct. 5.

“There’s a general change in the audience,” says “Lopez” exec producer Jim Paratore. “The younger end of the audience is not being serviced today. They’re much more ethnic and underserved.”

Yet, Lopez will have to break through with more than minorities for TBS to move beyond its 34-week, Monday-through-Thursday commitment to the show.

While Lopez will bring a Latino perspective to the genre, he’s had a long career as a standup and sitcom star because of his broad appeal among a range of demos. His ABC sitcom “George Lopez” ran for six seasons, and he remains one of the most popular figures on the standup circuit.

The Turner cablers are known for their strength with Middle America auds. But they’ve also done well with Tyler Perry’s black family comedies, “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns.”

Michael Wright, exec veep of programming for TBS, TNT and TCM, sees Lopez as a broad-based draw and distinctive from the rest of the latenight pack. “With George, you know you can draw audiences across the television portfolio,” Wright says.

From a business perspective, TBS is gambling on “Lopez Tonight” because the alternative is becoming less feasible. The cabler airs off-network comedies in the 11 p.m. timeslot, but prices for those shows continue to rise even as the volume of fresh sitcoms dwindles.

“The amount of comedy available has lessened over the years and less have made their way to cable,” Wright says.

TBS will continue to shop for off-network fare, but the supply issue gives the network more incentive to focus on originals. “It makes sense economically for us,” Wright says.

John Rash of ad agency Campbell Mithun can understand why TBS has taken a flier on talk.

“It’s worth the risk, particularly when one connects the relative cost compared to revenue. It’s very favorable,” he says. “You’ll see more of this because the dearth of sitcoms this decade has dried up much of the offnet syndication pipeline.”

As for having minorities toplining their own shows (Lopez, Sykes and Mo’Nique) and vying for untapped auds who have been turned off by the broadcasters’ latenight white men’s club, Rash adds that it’s a noble experiment and might ultimately pay off, but the end game is the same, no matter the ethnicity of the host.

“The differentiation of viewpoints is good, but they still have to prove themselves and be funny,” he says.

Lopez, who gained interview experience when he hosted a handful of episodes of Sharon Osbourne’s short-lived talkshow, is trying not to worry too much on the business aspect of latenight TV. Yes, he understands that no matter how many concerts he sells out, he needs to prove himself, again, on television.

“You’re at the mercy of getting people to watch,” Lopez says. “Everybody is trying to find viewers. I have an audience from sitcom and standup, but who knows?”

Clearly, from Lopez’s initial lineup of guests, those sitting on the couch will be a diverse group. For the opening-night show, those chatting it up with the host will be Kobe Bryant, Eva Longoria-Parker and Ellen DeGeneres. Others lined up for future shows include a wide mix: Ray Romano, Jessica Alba, Oscar de la Hoya, Eva Mendes and Queen Latifah.

For “The Wanda Sykes Show,” the format will be less like “The Tonight Show” and more like “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Sykes will come out at the top of the show and do a few minutes on a specific topic before getting into a full-range discussion with an assembled panel.

Todd Yasui, Fox’s senior VP of latenight, says that while Sykes will definitely be a draw to an African-American and gay audience — the comic recently outed herself — that wasn’t the net’s raison d’etre for having her take over the former “Mad TV” timeslot.

“We just wanted the funniest person,” Yasui says. “It really wasn’t about reaching that audience, but the idea having a woman out there is different in latenight and would seem a win-win in terms of bringing different ethnicities and cultures into the tent. But it wasn’t a calculated plan.”

Fox is also using “Sykes” as a trial balloon. If the skein can find some traction on the weekends, the net may enter the latenight game again during the week.

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