Networks seek next great non-white/male hope

Beyond rewriting the rules of primetime, Jay Leno’s shift to 10 p.m. signals the end of the “big tent” latenight talkshow — as TV talk disperses into narrower personalities, each with their own targeted audience.

It was 20 years ago that Arsenio Hall broke through in latenight, offering a looser urban alternative to the hegemony of white men in jackets and ties. Since then, however, the unique mix of talent and charisma required to command centerstage five nights a week has flummoxed any number of potential heirs, leaving former NBA superstar Magic Johnson and “In Living Color’s” Keenen Ivory Wayans gasping for air, along with the likes of Chevy Chase and Dennis Miller.

Leno’s move has fostered renewed impressions that latenight is up for grabs, and the riches associated with a hit talkshow — among TV’s most economical formats — are again luring new contenders into the fray. And while Leno replacement Conan O’Brien and David Letterman have largely split along age demographics — the former attracting younger men, the latter a larger but older audience — the newcomers are stratified along race and gender lines.

Women have found their voice — albeit a limited and irritatingly shrill one — with E!’s Chelsea Handler, but the latest volley reflects a clear desire to find a great nonwhite male hope. Comic George Lopez will bring his standup stylings — hugely popular among Latinos, but also blessed with crossover potential thanks to his earlier ABC sitcom — to TBS with “Lopez Tonight,” a four-night-a-week program starting Nov. 9, while Fox gives comic Wanda Sykes a weekly Saturday night program.

BET, meanwhile, introduced Mo’Nique — like Sykes, an African-American woman — as Comedy Central and Adult Swim have further splintered the competition for young males.

The influx of latenight yakkers has something in common with daytime, which has assembled its own lengthy roster of high-profile failures (Tony Danza, Jane Pauley, Wayne Brady, Megan Mullally, Martin Short) and has eagerly sought minority hosts in the hopes of bonding with underserved audience segments. The main difference is that daytime TV was historically perceived as a predominantly female medium — notwithstanding women’s shifting work patterns — whereas latenight has traditionally skewed more heavily toward men.

Johnny Carson, of course, set the standard in latenight for three decades, playing to a wide swath of the population. Yet it’s easy to forget that Carson’s “The Tonight Show” run had the benefit of facing scant competition — helming the NBC show for roughly 20 years before cable became any kind of a factor. Even Fox was only 5 years old when Carson announced his retirement.

Hall’s success awakened broadcasters to the notion that minorities represented an important component of the latenight audience, but the inroads have been few, and not always handled well.

In one memorable 1996 incident, CBS latenight executive John Pike was forced to resign when a magazine reported that he had called African-Americans ideal latenight viewers because more of them are unemployed and they watch an inordinate amount of TV. Pike maintained that he merely suggested the proposed latenight sketch comedy include black performers because minorities are a significant latenight audience and “voracious consumers of free television,” but the damage had been done.

Concerns about inclusiveness and crossing over have taken on a different tint in this niche programming age. Even O’Brien — attracting about half the audience Leno was at 11:30, or 2.5 million a night — is getting by with less than 1% of the U.S. population. CBS’ later-night host Craig Ferguson is averaging 2 million viewers this season, and the two Jimmys — Fallon and Kimmel — clock in below that plateau.

To say the landscape has changed would bring understatement to new depths, but there’s little doubt that lowering the ratings bar has helped open the door to a greater diversity of voices.

Lopez and Sykes each bring loyal followings to their new ventures — and Lopez’s weeknight berth could help chip away at the established players even further.

Whatever the results, it seems clear that when Leno pulled up stakes he closed a chapter in latenight — leaving behind a space where talk remains cheap, plentiful and more fragmented than ever.

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