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Video: The Late Nightlife Tonight Show

7 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Poor Jimmy Breslin. After 36 years as a sports reporter, crusading columnist and New York City character, he finally lands his own network TV show, only to find himself at the end of a very long line. In New York, for instance, the Friday edition of his late-night talk show does not air until Monday. Then a viewer has to outlast an ABC Monday-night football game that usually wraps up after midnight, a half-hour local newscast, Nightline with Ted Koppel and Nightlife with David Brenner before Breslin’s mug finally appears on the screen, somewhere around 2 a.m. The graveyard shift has so annoyed Breslin that he complained about it in a New York Daily News column, implying that he will give up the show at the end of his 13-week contract. “I do not intend,” he said, “to be publicly embarrassed in my own city any longer than that.”

Breslin should feel at home: the crush of shows elbowing for space in the late-night arena is starting to look like the 5 p.m. commuter crowd at Penn Station. A year ago at this time, the field was largely the domain of NBC’s Johnny Carson-David Letterman duo and ABC’s Nightline. But Joan Rivers, who raucously departed as the Tonight show’s permanent guest host last spring, has just launched her own syndicated talk show, telecast live at 11 p.m. EST and currently seen on 99 stations. Brenner’s Nightlife, another syndicated entry, is now in its second month on 108 stations. ABC, meanwhile, has enlivened the post-Koppel hours with a pair of newcomers: The Dick Cavett Show on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Jimmy Breslin’s People on Thursdays and Fridays. Linda Ellerbee is expected to join them starting in January. Even CBS, which has traditionally settled for reruns after the local news, has refurbished its late-night schedule with a trio of original crime dramas produced in Canada.

So far none of the newcomers have come close to upending Carson, still the after-hours ratings king. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, the flagship of Rupert Murdoch’s new Fox Broadcasting Co., has done respectably in the ratings, but is well behind Carson, averaging a 4.9 rating in twelve prime urban markets, compared with Carson’s 7.5. Brenner’s numbers have been more disappointing, hovering around 2.4. Cavett and Breslin (whose shows are designed to air at midnight EST, but have been pushed later by several major , ABC affiliates to make room for Brenner’s show) are lagging farther behind.

The participants in this nighttime battle royal, however, insist that it is not a duel to the death. “We don’t see ourselves as pitted against Johnny Carson,” says Barry Diller, chairman of Fox Inc., Rivers’ corporate parent. “We’re just aiming at improving the performance of the independent stations that carry us.” Rivers, who roused Carson’s ire last spring when she left for the competition without telling him first, is also sounding a conciliatory note: “My people will watch me; Johnny’s people will watch him . . . We can all make it; the pie just has to be cut a little smaller.” How many pieces the pie can accommodate remains to be seen. Cavett, who is returning to ABC after sojourns on PBS and cable, observes that it is “kind of silly” to have so many talk shows. “We could all just have them come from the same set,” he quips. “Do you realize how much money we would save?”

It is, of course, the money to be made that has sparked the current boom in programming for the not-ready-for-prime-time hours. Independent stations and syndicators, which have proliferated in recent years, see late night as a relatively untapped time period, where they can compete against network fare with somewhat inexpensive shows. The networks, in turn, have fought back by more aggressively programming a time period that used to be an afterthought. The stakes are rising: late night is a desirable time period for advertisers because it is attracting an increasingly high proportion of young adult viewers, especially women. “With a growing percentage of women now working out of the home,” says David Poltrack, head of broadcast research for CBS, “the reach of daytime television is declining. Advertisers find late night to be an ideal time to reach young workingwomen.”

Much of the late-night revival can be traced to the success of NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman. The show’s hip, media-wise comedy has caught on with the Saturday Night Live generation, and ratings have increased more than 40% since its debut in 1982. Letterman’s influence, not surprisingly, can be seen across the late-night dial this fall. Rivers and Brenner are booking hot music groups like Run-D.M.C. and the Fabulous Thunderbirds in an effort to attract a younger audience. And both hosts (as well as the conservative Carson) are toying with offbeat, Letterman-style comedy bits.

Nevertheless, Rivers’ show still hews closer to the Carson line. Her Tonight-style set (desk, couch, picture window with a fake Los Angeles view) seems calculated to fool a casual viewer into thinking he has stumbled into one of Johnny’s vacation weeks. After an exceedingly nervous start, the brassy comedian is settling into her familiar, irritating groove. To her credit, Rivers has loosened up the stuffy Tonight format a bit (with Film Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, she left her desk and plopped onto the couch to separate the “feuding” pair). But her naughty-girl obsession with sex has become grating and pointless (to Kate Jackson: “Did you ever have a one-night stand?”). And for all her “Can we talk?” frankness, the show drowns in the biggest deluge of show-biz gush on television.

Well, maybe the second biggest. Brenner’s new show — a cramped half-hour of music, talk and comedy — has managed to strip the celebrity interview of its last vestiges of real-life conversation. “How does it feel to be a star?” groveled Brenner before Malcolm-Jamal Warner, 16-year-old supporting player on The Cosby Show. Brenner, the most Vegas-ized of the stand-up comics who emerged from the comedy-club circuit of the 1970s, has made stabs at Lettermanesque irreverence (taking members of the studio audience to a clothing store to help him pick out a new wardrobe), but comes across like Robert Goulet trying to do a rap song.

ABC’s new late-night entries are more watchable. Cavett’s ego continues to occupy an undeservedly large part of the stage, and his comedy material has flopped embarrassingly. But he is still one of TV’s most alert and intelligent interviewers, and his guests — from Actor Richard Gere to Mafia Chronicler Peter Maas — have been well chosen. Breslin, meanwhile, has come up with the fall’s quirkiest late-night entry. Stationed at a cluttered office desk, he introduces an offbeat mix of features and interviews, most of them taped on location. He has, for example, shown courtroom highlights from a Florida murder trial, interviewed a man who used to tend the electric chair in a Texas penitentiary and talked with a New York City bus driver suspended for going to the bathroom while on duty.

Breslin’s show, however, may be too pungent and rough-edged to succeed in late night, where Carson’s comfortable couch is wearing well. The Tonight host has fought off rivals before — from Joey Bishop to Alan Thicke — but the newest challenge seems to have rejuvenated him. His guest lists are better (on the night of Rivers’ debut, Carson countered with the reclusive Sean Penn), and his opening monologue remains an invaluable cultural guidepost. (After the initial glum reports from the Reykjavik summit, Carson commented, “George Shultz stepped out of the shower and told Reagan it was all a bad dream.”) Even Carson’s cool, make-no-waves interviewing style is refreshing after the pushy prattle of Rivers and Brenner.

Carson’s entourage denies that the show has made any overt changes in response to the new competition. NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff compares Carson to “a great athlete who rises to the challenge. He’ll take a great game and play it better when more eyes are watching.” But industry speculation is growing that Carson, after fending off this latest competition, might finally retire next year, when he reaches his 25th anniversary as Tonight host. If so, the battle for late night may be only beginning.

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