CNBC pins hopes on loudmouth legend

McEnroe skein to debut Wednesday

NEW YORK — John McEnroe’s “Letterman”-like show on CNBC bows next week, part of the campaign to take the dollar sign out of the financial cable news net’s evening lineup and replace it with more entertaining fare.

The campaign has yet to produce a critical hit, however, whether it be Dennis Miller’s new weeknight show or Tina Brown’s “Topic A” on Sunday. Brown’s one-hour interview program has fared dismally in the ratings, despite a long roster of high-profile guests.

“McEnroe” debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET, following the one-hour “Dennis Miller.” NBC U entertainment, news and cable prexy Jeff Zucker was instrumental in bringing both Miller and McEnroe onboard. It was NBC Sports topper Dick Ebersol who introduced Zucker to McEnroe several years ago.

The tennis champ didn’t want to host a typical news and interview talker, meaning “McEnroe” looks and feels like a latenight show.

“We are just trying to be different,” said newly installed CNBC senior VP of primetime programming Bob Meyers. “People look at us like we are crazy. Having the same old thing in terms of news and information isn’t something that appealed to me.”

Meyers also said he has the utmost confidence in Brown, regardless of the ratings. “This is not a mainstream show. CNBC is a niche network with a very upscale audience. It’s not a mainstream show. It’s a very smart show. It’s a totally different show from ‘Dennis Miller.’ ”

Brown’s show has averaged 108,000 viewers since it launched Feb. 8, the smallest aud for any cable news show on Sunday night for the same time period, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The media diva does not lack for star power when it comes to booking guests, including Sony CEO Howard Stringer and Miramax topper Harvey Weinstein, her former boss.

During the second quarter of 2004, Miller averaged 199,000 viewers, putting him in the lower half of the ratings list for cable news shows.

In a telephone interview from Wimbledon, McEnroe told Daily Variety he realizes CNBC is taking a gamble in hiring him. Although he’s a successful television sports commentator, this is his first solo TV gig.

“It’s a great opportunity, because the expectations are lower than if I were appearing on network television,” McEnroe said.

He will continue on as an analyst for NBC Sports’ tennis coverage, including the French Open and Wimbledon. He also will remain an analyst on USA Network’s coverage of the U.S. Open.

“McEnroe” will air original episodes Monday through Thursday.

There will be an array of contributors, including John Fugelsang, most recently a co-host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Fugelsang has been a recurring guest on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” as well as hosting a variety of specials for music net VH1.

A sample tape of “McEnroe” featured Fugelsang and McEnroe interviewing New York Times reporter Alex Kuczynski about Botox. Next, McEnroe’s wife, rocker Patti Smythe, came on the set to give her husband a kiss and to sing, accompanied by McEnroe on electric guitar.

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