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Midnight Madness: Late Night TV

With Fox in the game and Leno in flux, late night prepares for A shakeup 10/07/2006 08:05:00 AM Eastern

It took Fox's new late-night Talkshow With Spike Feresten all of about three seconds to lampoon the network's long history of late-night failure. Feresten opened the show's premiere by introducing a look at Fox's “long and storied history in late night.”

In the faux documentary, a cigarette-puffing host got fired for swearing on live television, and a voiceover went on to say how the host put a curse on the network. Viewers then got a look at how the curse played out, with photos depicting the high-profile bombs helmed by Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase.

With Feresten, in his thick-rimmed glasses and sneakers, Fox is cautiously re-entering the late-night game. The 30-minute Talkshow airs Saturdays at midnight ET, following MadTV. Feresten, a former Seinfeld and Late Night With David Letterman scribe, is taking his first shot as a host. While it's a low-risk affair, Talkshow reveals Fox's ambitious late-night plans, which Entertainment President Peter Liguori has made a priority. The network is eager to find a big-name talk talent for Monday through Friday nights, one that can take on the likes of The Tonight Show and The Late Show.

It's an ideal time to jump into the late-night ring. After years of relative stability, the genre is about to witness its biggest shakeup since Johnny Carson retired in 1992. Much of it stems from NBC's announcement that Conan O'Brien, host of Late Night, will supplant Jay Leno on The Tonight Show in 2009. If or when marquee names like Leno, Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart become available, much of nearly $1 billion in yearly late-night broadcast ad revenue could be up for grabs.

MUSICAL (HOST) CHAIRS

Fox has set its sights on late night, which is chock-full of the young male viewers that marketers covet. That daypart is more competitive than ever, as the traditional talk shows now have to battle for audience with a new wave of humor on cable like Comedy Central's block of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. And while it may not get Jon Stewart's buzz, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block pulls in just as many viewers as the Comedy Central pairing in the lucrative adult 18-49 demo during the 11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. hour.

Should the right host, be it Leno or another high-wattage star, become available, Liguori says, he'll write the $25 million-$30 million check in an instant. Since successful late shows bank well over $100 million in annual profits, Fox is hungry for a piece of the action.

One or more of those big stars might be available sooner rather than later. The stage was set two years ago when NBC announced that it will hand The Tonight Show to O'Brien in 2009, a move that sent shock waves through the industry—mostly because it happened so far in advance of the actual switch. But NBC execs knew that, if they didn't promise O'Brien a start date, he would leave the network. “Succession is something [parent company] G.E. drills into your head, whether you are in broadcasting or jet engines,” says NBC's head of late night Rick Ludwin. “That's what drove the discussions with Jay and Conan.”

Part of the reason for NBC's urgency was to avoid a replay of the acrimonious Leno-Letterman battle to replace Johnny Carson. “They wanted to avoid that at all costs, it was so traumatic for them,” says Peter Lassally, the dean of late-night executive producers, who was with Carson for 20 years before guiding Letterman and is now helping Craig Ferguson find his footing at CBS.

Since Carson's retirement in 1992, Leno has settled in as the undisputed king of the late-night hill. Tonight brought in nearly $285 million in advertising in 2005, around $50 million more than Letterman's Late Show. Leno has bested Letterman in the past 42 sweeps months—11 straight television seasons.

Given that The Tonight Show represents about 15% of NBC's bottom line, many consider it seriously risky to announce Leno's replacement with O'Brien so far in advance. (Both NBC's Ludwin and sources close to O'Brien describe the move as definite.) The plan still has many in the industry scratching their head.

“I was very surprised Jay was forced out of The Tonight Show,” says veteran Letterman Executive Producer Rob Burnett. “It was surprising to me that the guy who has been at it for as long as he has and is still hosting a profitable show, that NBC would decide out with the old and in with the new.”

Other industry insiders think the network might change its mind and keep Leno in 2009. Sources with knowledge of the situation say NBC would have to pay O'Brien upwards of $40 million as a penalty if he does not take over in 2009.

Leno's departure would leave the host lineup across the dial in disarray. NBC would have to fill O'Brien's spot at Late Night, which it hopes to finalize in the next year. Carson Daly, host of 1:30 a.m. program Last Call, is a candidate, but NBC's Ludwin says that the network will look into several possibilities.

And what about Leno? He'll be just 59 in 2009, and friends say it's unlikely he'll retire. “We never thought for a second Jay was just going to start gardening,” admits NBC entertainment chief Kevin Reilly. NBC is trying desperately to keep him in the family and has spoken with him about several roles and dayparts, including daytime and syndication, though both are considered unlikely scenarios. (Leno would not comment for this article.)

IF LENO STAYS...

If Leno decides to stay in late night, there will be no shortage of suitors, with Fox, ABC and syndication all possible outcomes. Says Liguori, “Any network would have to consider what he would mean to their air.”

At ABC, industry insiders say Leno at 11:30 followed by Jimmy Kimmel at 12:30 would give ABC's entertainment side the long-desired ammunition it needs to scrap veteran Nightline. It would also set the stage for Kimmel to replace Leno in the 11:30 slot when Jay eventually retires. Nightline, however, is enjoying a ratings resurgence almost a year after Ted Koppel's departure, and Diane Sawyer is rumored to be interested in some sort of hosting role. Therefore, ABC execs might be leery of displacing the esteemed news program. (ABC execs did not comment on their late-night plans.)

Then there's Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who is signed with Comedy Central through 2008. While Fox and ABC may both go hard after Stewart, he is said to want to replace Letterman whenever he decides to retire—which doesn't appear to be soon, health permitting. (Says Lassally, “Knowing Dave the way I do, I think he will do it as long as he can.”)

Stewart can expect numerous offers. “I think Jon is everybody's candidate,” Lassally says. “I think he is perfect where he is, but he's a major player in this game.”

If ABC did bring in Leno or Stewart at 11:30, Fox (which made a $25 million run at O'Brien a few years back) could even take a shot at Kimmel, whose stock is rising. The ABC host has become much more comfortable in his role since Jimmy Kimmel Live premiered in 2003, and his bawdy sense of humor would fit at Fox. ABC appears happy with Kimmel's performance; the network recently renewed the show through 2008 and gave him a primetime special last month.

SPIKE WHO???

Because Leno and Stewart will be tough to land, Fox is surveying the landscape for other big names. While many consider them long shots, star comics such as Dane Cook and Chris Rock often warrant interest from the networks. “If Chris Rock said he was interested in late night,” says NBC's Ludwin, “I would be on his doorstep tomorrow.”

But before it zeroes in on Leno, Stewart or anyone else, Fox is focusing on Feresten. Originally envisioned as a Daily Show-type program for the entertainment business, Talkshow was initially put on hold after former Fox entertainment chief Gail Berman left the network. Months later, when it was put in front of her replacement, Liguori, he (like most) had no idea who Feresten was. “He had to be introduced to me the same way he will have to be introduced to the audience,” Liguori says.

But Liguori and Feresten hit it off, and Liguori ordered a 22-show run. Fox has little to lose in Feresten. Talkshow demonstrates to the industry that Fox is back in the late-night game, it gives the network a chance to build its late-night department. Also, it's a low-risk venture with a potentially high reward: In the event that Feresten turns into the next Conan O'Brien (also a comedy writer turned host), it's an asset Fox can plug in anywhere on its schedule.

But Fox doesn't expect Feresten, who's a youthful 41, to battle Leno or Letterman—or even Kimmel—anytime soon. The network is happy to run the show just 30 minutes once a week and keep things small and simple, including staffing just five writers versus the 13 or so at the bigger talk shows.

Given its midnight time slot and the edgy mentality of the Fox network, Feresten's show is not afraid of below-the-belt humor: In one of the first scenes shown to ad buyers, Feresten gets shot in the groin by a paintball gun. He also openly caters to the drug-friendly audience, often introducing segments—one has people dressed in animal costumes running in slow motion—with the disclaimer that, if you are not stoned, you won't appreciate what is about to come. Guests include offbeat personalities like Andy Richter, Tom Green and MadTV's Michael McDonald.

Reviews thus far have been mixed, and Feresten seems to revel in his underdog status. “You and I both know you have no idea who I am,” he tells the audience in the first episodes. The show gets little marketing support and consequently draws about 2 million viewers per episode; in comparison, Saturday Night Live repeats in the same time slot do close to 5 million viewers.

Liguori acknowledges that he doesn't expect blockbuster numbers. “Let's face it, we're putting it in a very protected time period,” he says. “I think Feresten should develop under the radar.”

For the time being, Fox is nurturing Feresten and drawing up other late-night options. It recently signed a development deal with Sopranos veteran Steven Schirripa and is combing comedy festivals and clubs for leads. Feresten recently bumped into Leno at a car show in Los Angeles (the two know each other from when Feresten wrote jokes when Leno would sub for Carson), and the crafty veteran passed along words of wisdom for the rookie.

“He said just tell lots of jokes,” says Feresten. “If one doesn't work, just hurry to the next one.”

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