Programming

The 'Woof' Man Is Back. But Will the Audience Bite?

How Arsenio Hall hopes to work in today’s competitive late-night landscape 7/29/2013 05:12:00 PM Eastern

palbiniak@gmail.com | @PaigeA

The return of The Arsenio Hall Show to late night represents a $50 million
bet by CBS Television Distribution and Tribune, who are partnering on the program. But the much-hyped, celebrated arrival
also begs a question: How much is the
deck already stacked against Hall before
the first play is made?

Why This Matters
Arsenio Hall is looking to make a comeback in late-night syndication, proving that there's still money to be made both in today's tough businesses of late night and first-run syndication.

In fact, the odds are pretty long. The
show—which premieres in syndication on
Tribune, CBS, Local TV, Sinclair and other
stations on Sept. 9, 2013—is going to have
to hit its ratings out of the park to become
a moneymaker. These days, even NBC’s
storied Tonight Show is having a hard time making its
financials work.

Arsenio’s re-entry is designed to get Tribune out of
the late-night sitcom business, which is expensive, risky
and doesn’t allow stations to control much of its advertising
inventory. But it will also train a bright spotlight
on late night itself, which—like myriad dayparts,
perhaps most notably the evening news—struggles to
prove it still has big-ratings and big-dollar potential in
an increasingly fragmented viewing world.

Putting first-run instead of sitcoms in late night carries
its attendant risks. In its first year, the cost of producing
Arsenio is estimated to be $36 million, not including
marketing, which will likely run
$10 million to $15 million, according
to sources. Compare that to an estimated
$75 million annually—not including
Jay Leno’s estimated $15 million salary
(which has been reduced significantly
in recent years)—for NBC to produce
The Tonight Show.

TV stations are paying cash license
fees for Arsenio—in the range of
$180,000 per week or $9.4 million for the year, with
much of that coming from Tribune. The barter split is a
local TV-heavy nine minutes, with five minutes of time
for CTD to sell to national advertisers in every hourlong
program.

Should Arsenio manage a 1.0 household rating
average—a reasonable expectation—CTD stands to
earn $26 million a year in advertising revenues at a
generously estimated $10 household cost-per-thousand
(CPM) advertising rate, according to estimates, plus the
$10 million in cash license fees. That would mean in
year one, Arsenio Hall would run a deficit of at least
$10 million to $15 million. That’s a common syndication
scenario, but at those performance levels, the
program will have to show serious growth potential in
order to remain on the air.

“I think that Arsenio Hall is going to need time to
grow like any show, but at the same time we are going
to know pretty quickly if it’s got traction,” says Sean
Compton, president of programming and entertainment
for Tribune, who recruited Hall back to the air
and offered him Tribune’s stations as a home. “Look
at shows like [Debmar-Mercury’s] Wendy Williams. For
three years everyone said, ‘Why is Fox renewing that?’
But now it’s up and it’s having a nice run. I think these
shows need time, as long as the show is produced well,
which it will be, and gets proper promotion, which it
is getting.”

Late Night’s Economic Challenges

Like all of television, late night has become an
increasingly tough business. Once established, its
personalities tend to stay put, but an established
late-night franchise is no longer the license to print
money it once was.

While The Tonight Show remains late night’s highest-
rated show, its revenues have plunged as audiences
have fragmented. The Tonight Show once earned $150
million annually for NBC, according to reports; today,
that number falls somewhere between $25 million and
$40 million. The show’s upcoming move to New York
is motivated by more than just Jimmy Fallon’s desire to
stay put: Last spring, New York instituted a tax credit
that will reimburse The Tonight Show for 30% of its
costs, or as much as $25 million annually.

That means while Arsenio Hall is cost-conscious, the
show probably can never be cost-conscious enough in
today’s economically tight TV environment.

“It’s rough,” says Hall. “I went in this morning and
said to all my writers, ‘I know that everyone in this
room is here because for whatever reason you wanted
to give me a shot.’ I don’t have the big baller network
money. I thanked them for being here. I know they
aren’t here because I backed up the Brinks truck and
loaded up their Volvos with cash.”

For its part, CTD says it’s giving the show its all. “We
have got every resource to launch a pretty big late-night
show. We haven’t cut back in any way on this show and
what it needs in order to make it successful,” says Maureen
FitzPatrick, CTD’s executive VP of programming
and development.

Hall is well aware of the state of late night. “Back
then, it was a small world of Johnny the King,” he says.
“Back then, I could do a show for the demographic that
I liked. It’s not as easy anymore.”

0729 Late Night A Lot Can Happen chart

Facing Jay, Dave and Jimmy

Indeed, late night has seen a seismic shift in the 19
years since Hall’s departure. In 41 of the top 100 markets,
Arsenio Hall will air at 11 p.m. In 29 of the top
100 markets, the show will air at 10 p.m., and 17 of those markets are in Central and Mountain time zones
where late night starts one hour earlier. The Tonight
Show
and Late Show with David Letterman both
come on at 10:35 p.m. in those mid-country markets.

Thus, in the top-ten markets, Arsenio Hall will go
head to head with the established late-night players,
although not necessarily for the show’s entire hour. In
New York and Los Angeles, the show will air at 11 p.m.
on Tribune’s WPIX New York and KTLA Los Angeles.
Arsenio Hall will start at 10 p.m. on Tribune’s WGN
Chicago and KDAF Dallas. On Tribune’s WPHL Philadelphia,
the show will start just five minutes ahead of
Leno and Letterman at 11:30 p.m.

When Arsenio aired from 1988-94, many of its strongest
affiliates were owned by CBS, including WBBM
Chicago and WJW Cleveland. Fox affiliates also carried
the show in many markets, but bumped it at the end of
its run in favor of Fox’s short-lived The Chevy Chase
Show
. Making things even tougher, when Letterman
moved over to CBS in 1993, the CBS affiliates that
carried Arsenio switched it out for Letterman, pushing
Arsenio out of many of its best time slots.

Today, the late-night landscape is far more crowded
and its ratings more challenged. NBC remains the leader
with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno at 11:35 p.m.,
where it averages 2.8 million viewers and is even at a
0.8 year to year among late-night’s key demographic of
adults 18-49. Following Leno, Late Night with Jimmy
Fallon
at 12:35 a.m. is up 4% among adults 18-49 to a
0.6, and is averaging 1.5 million total viewers. In February,
Fallon will take over The Tonight Show, and is
expected to bring his cadre of young viewers with him.

On CBS, Late Show with David Letterman and the
Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson
air opposite Leno
and Fallon. Letterman averages 2.4 million viewers,
and is down 13% for the year to a 0.5 among adults
18-49. Ferguson, meanwhile, averages 1.2 million viewers
and is down 9% for the year among adults 18-49
to a 0.4.

In January, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live switched
with ABC’s Nightline at 11:35 p.m., which will put
that show’s last half-hour head-to-head with Arsenio
in most top markets come September. Moving up
an hour, JKL ratings naturally rose across the board
compared to its performance in the later time period,
given the fact that more people are watching TV earlier
in the evening. However, compared to Nightline
at 11:35 p.m. in 2012, household and demo ratings
alike dropped in the time period.This is a point ABC
execs have said they expected and planned for in
making the switch, knowing that they can get ad premiums
for entertainment programming in the time
period that they couldn’t capture with news.

Cable Competition

Cable also has become a late-night battleground.
The man who would have had The Tonight Show
chair, Conan O’Brien, is now firmly ensconced at
TBS, where his show is signed through 2015. Conan
is averaging 850,000 viewers, down 20% from last
year’s 1.02 million. Conan also is down 19% among
adults 18-49, dropping to a 0.4 from last season’s 0.5
in that key demo.

From a ratings point of view, Comedy Central’s The
Daily Show with Jon Stewart
at 11 p.m. is the Jay Leno
of cable late night, leading the pack with a 2.7 household
rating, down 7% from last year, and an average
of 2.1 million viewers. Stewart’s closest competition
comes from his spin-off, The Colbert Report, which averages
a 2.5 in households, even compared to last year,
and 1.6 million viewers, up 1% from last year.

In most markets, The Daily Show and Colbert
Report
will provide the most direct competition to
Arsenio, since Daily Show starts at 11 p.m. However,
both of the Comedy Central shows are political satires,
while Arsenio will be a general entertainment program
more akin to the broadcast network shows with talk,
music and comedy.

Over at E!, Chelsea Lately has garnered a small but
stalwart audience of loyal fans at 11 p.m. And on July
17, ESPN2 announced that veteran commentator Keith
Olbermann would be hosting a sports-focused show,
also at 11 p.m.

The best-case ratings scenario for Arsenio Hall
as it is for all syndicated shows—is that it beats its
year-ago time period performance and improves
upon its lead-ins.

Last September, Tribune’s WPIX New York was airing
repeats of Seinfeld at 11 p.m., and they were averaging
a 0.9 rating/2 share. Similarly, KTLA Los Angeles, with
repeats of Friends, was in that same range at a 0.9/2.
WGN Chicago, with a double-run of Family Guy, averaged
a 1.1/3 in the time slot. If Arsenio turns in similar
ratings in year one, Tribune will consider it a success.
Tribune is keeping far more of the advertising inventory
in Arsenio than it was in those off-net sitcoms.

0729 Late Night Shifts chart


Gearing Up for the Long Haul

All of that competition, combined with the sheer
workload, is enough to make most people flee in terror,
or at least offer a polite ‘no, thank you’ and walk away.

It is so much work,” Hall admits, “and there are differences this time around. I’ve done the work before,
but I’m also older and I need a nap sometimes. I don’t
know how Leno does it.”

That said, he seems up for all of it. When Hall isn’t
making the rounds at local affiliates, he’s in his production
office at Hollywood’s Sunset Bronson Studios or
at a red-carpet event. Since the show was announced
last summer, Hall has appeared at every relevant event,
from NATPE in January to the PromaxBDA Station
Summit in June to any other place where he could resurrect
the “woof!” call and promote his show.

“He’s got the energy of a 20-year-old,” says CTD’s
FitzPatrick. “In our building there are three flights of
stairs and he bounds up and down those stairs many
times every day.”

On July 15, a little less than two months until premiere,
Hall said he could finally look out of his office
and see a full staff in place, chatting in the hallways,
grabbing coffee, making things happen. While CTD is
building a soundstage, currently the place looks like
any other office complex—lots of cubes, lots of people,
lots of paper flying around.

Arsenio’s staff is led by Hall himself—who says he’s
literally talked to thousands of people in trying to find
the right fits—and executive producer Neal Kendall,
who joined Arsenio from PBS’ Tavis Smiley. Hall and
Kendall were recently joined by former Arsenio staffers
Claudia Cagan and Makiko Ushiyama, who are reteaming
with Hall as senior talent producer and producer,
respectively. Hall and his team have also hired a full
writers’ room, which includes people who have written
for Leno and Ellen DeGeneres.

“I’m really serious about the work,” Hall says. “I like
people to prepare. Don’t come in not understanding
Conan and Jay if you want to work with me.”

Back to the Future

“We are looking to do a 21st century version of
what Arsenio did on his original show. Late night is
a pretty tried-and-true format, and we’ve all been
stealing from Steve Allen since the 1950s,” says Kendall.
“I look at it as Arsenio just took a long weekend—
it just happened to be a 19-year weekend.

“This show is going to have everything that viewers
who watch late night have come to expect—
monologues, sketches, guests, music, audience
participation. We’re going to use everything at our
disposal in the year 2013.”

Right now, Kendall is focusing on “setting up the
processes by which you can run a daily show and
have it run smoothly. One of the things I’ve been
preaching to everyone here is that if we do this right,
going through all of the nuts and bolts of everything
right now, that will set us up for the long run,” he
says. “Most of the early work is just mundane: setting
up software programs, figuring out how the
script department will interface.”

Hall also knows that there’s a lot of talk about attracting
the younger demographic, but getting those
young eyes away from iPhones and on to TV is a
challenge. One of the show’s first hires was Paul Raff,
who formerly was a supervising producer at Jimmy Kimmel Live. While neither Hall nor
Kendall will reveal their digital strategy, they plan to
be all over the Internet. Hall is something of a viral
pioneer, with about 2 million combined views of
various YouTube videos of President Clinton playing
the sax on Hall’s old show.

“You can’t predict whether something will go viral,”
says Hall. “You just have to do good work and
hope it does.”

Arsenio’s marketing campaign kicked off early,
with CTD distributing “The Woof Man Is Back” online
and to local TV stations in December.

“You hear so much about going after the young
demographic, but when demographers in my business
talk about the Jay Leno/Jimmy Fallon demo,
they are really talking about people in their late 40s
or early 50s. It’s hard to find a 25-year-old that turns
on the TV consistently. When they are talking about
the young demo in late night, they are talking about
48-year-olds,” says the 57-year-old Hall, who has a
teenage son he looks to when trying to figure out
how young minds approach pop culture.

Late night may be the most competitive it’s ever
been, but Arsenio’s peers are welcoming him back
with open arms. Or at least sarcasm, which may be
the same thing for a late-night comic.

Said Rob Burnett, executive producer of Late Show
With David Letterman
, on which Hall will appear on
Friday, Sept. 6, just days before his own show premieres:
“It is a testament to Arsenio’s talent and courage
to start a new talk show without legally changing
his name to Jimmy. We wish him the best.”

 

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