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Faced with a diminishing number of timeslots, syndicators searching for the next “Arsenio Hall Show” could be in for a struggle.

Industry pundits assume that only one of four new firstrun latenight entertainment talkshows in development for next fall will make it onto the air after a bruising fight for clearances.

At stake are tens of millions of dollars in potential profits from the coveted young adult audience. To date, only Hall has been able to successfully tap into the coveted but fickle demo in late fringe.

Fox slot filled

In any other year, two of the new shows may have been able to get on the air. But Fox Broadcasting is taking another stab at latenight television – a sexy “Melrose Place”-like soap – in January 1997.

Combined with a potent backup supply of “X-Files” reruns and a commitment by Fox O& Os to follow the weblet series with New World’s one-hour strip “Loveline,” many latenight time periods for syndicators will be wiped out.

Making matters worse, most stations are no longer delaying network talk and news fare to carry syndie shows. They agreed to air Jay Leno, David Letterman and “Nightline” in pattern in return for new long-term, highly lucrative affiliation pacts.

The list of prospective combatants – all targeted toward young, urban audiences – include black comedian Teddy Carpenter from Tribune Entertainment, MTV veejay Bill Bellamy from Paramount, Kid of Kid ‘n Play fame from Columbia TriStar and that Disney-esque drag queen RuPaul from Buena Vista TV.

Trib’s nominee

Carpenter is a sure bet for the Tribune stations, which reach nearly 28% of the U.S. and 40% of all black homes.

But it’s likely that only one of the other three shows would be able to secure a berth on Chris-Craft, the only other top indie station group with latenight slots available. BVTV’s “Stephanie Miller” landed there this season, as did Par’s “Jon Stewart” last year.

The real guerilla warfare will be fought between Trib and the winner of the Chris-Craft contest in mid-and small-sized markets.

“You would have to fight, scream, scratch and claw to get yourself covered, but you could probably put together enough stations to get a national rating,” a syndication exec says.

Without Fox outlets, the sellers of these shows will likely first turn to ABC affils, many of which once carried Paramount’s latenight fave “Arsenio Hall.”

Time periods could be available on many of the Alphabet affils. Sources say that talks have collapsed to pick up Comedy Central’s “Politically Incorrect” for the post-“Nightline” slot.

Film features in pipeline

The “Incorrect” deal was doomed by the opposition of the web’s large-market owned stations, many of which are carrying high-priced feature movie inventories suited to run after the nightly news series.

ABC affils, however, could pose another problem for syndicators, according to Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming for the Katz TV station rep firm.

During the fourth quarter – a lucrative time for advertising revenue – the shows would face frequent preemptions from lengthy “Monday Night Football” gridiron contests, he says. And during the remainder of the year, Carroll notes, they would have to contend with routine runovers from “Nightline.”

Shopping for options

Another option for programmers is a spate of converted home shopping channels and fairly weak indies – the backbones of the UPN and WB networks – that operate under local marketing agreements (deals that permit one station to manage a second in the same market).

Programmers can try to cut deals either with those stations individually or strike an overall latenight agreement with one of the new netlets, which would provide them with enough stations to ensure a launch. The question, according to syndicators, is whether UPN or WB have enough clout with their affiliate boards to get such a deal approved.

Jack Fentress, VP-director of programming for the station rep firm Petry National TV, is uncertain whether the dollar return from a rag-tag lineup would justify the big costs of producing a new latenight talker.

“Someone in the business office of these companies is going to have to decide that,” he says.

If neither of the tactics works, there’s always cable. Tribune has its own Chicago superstation, WGN, for instance.

Reality competitors

The new entertainment talkers will face competition from a hodgepodge of talk and reality strips – both new and returning – that can play in a variety of dayparts. One scenario making the rounds has BVTV exploring latenight opportunities for the current daytime talker “Danny Bonaduce.”

A clearance isn’t always enough, though. It’s the right time period that counts, especially in latenight.

Tough time for talk

Talk and reality shows generally have a tougher time at 11 p.m. against late local newscasts than off-net sitcoms and comedy gameshows. If, on the other hand, they wind up past midnight, the programs will see a sharp drop in viewing levels in most markets.

Which means the struggle for 11:30 p.m. East and West coast time periods could be particularly intense.

Still, as Carroll notes, “Nothing is impossible. You do start off with several roadblocks in front of you, but there is always room for a great show. Knowing what that great show is comes down partially to luck and partially to timing. That’s the way it works.”