With its Saturday late-night schedule in flux after the announcement that it won't bring back MadTV next season, Fox is giving Spike Feresten an early tryout to fill the void.
The network will give Talkshow With Spike Feresten a six-week run of hour-long shows at 11 p.m. beginning Jan. 17. That is an upgrade both in length and time slot for the third-year show, which normally airs at midnight for 30 minutes.
But the tryout may carry bigger stakes for Feresten. The network wants to see if the host has the stuff to be part of a weeknight block if the network ever decides to re-enter that daypart.
“We're making a concerted effort to kick Spike to the next level,” says Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. “He's growing to where he's breaking out in the digital world, and we want to see where that takes him.”
The network has no imminent plans to try once again where Chevy Chase and others have failed, but Fox execs have long said they are seeking the right opportunity—or personality—to jump back into the game.
Network execs are closely monitoring the shakeup in late night next year, and may take a crack if Jay Leno or former Fox Sports talent Jimmy Kimmel becomes available.
If that were to happen, Feresten impressing the network brass could eventually earn him a weeknight time slot following such a host.
But first up for Fox execs is filling the 90-minute Saturday night block beginning next fall when MadTV is gone. Feresten will have the chance to win the 11 p.m. time slot, but either way the hunt is on for the right personality to build a companion show around, whether it's another talk show or some other form of comedy.
And Fox Senior VP of Late Night Programming Todd Yasui says that since the decision not to give MadTV another season went public, he is getting inundated with pitches.
“We're actively developing many comedy shows for next September,” he says. “We're not ruling anything out.”
During Feresten's six-week upgrade, MadTV, which normally airs at 11, will air 30-minute repeats at 12 a.m.
After the six-week run, the plan is for MadTV to return to its familiar 11 p.m. slot and finish its final season on the network there, with Talk Show going back to midnight.
Feresten, a prominent TV writer who numbers Seinfeld among his list of credits, calls the opportunity “unexpected.” He adds that while the six-week upgrade will up the ante, it has never been a cakewalk.
“With this show, there's always been pressure,” he says. “Barbara Walters confessed to Charlie Gibson that every show felt like an audition. I relate to that statement.”
But Feresten, who says he was “saddened” by Fox's decision to jettison MadTV at the end of the season, is excited about the potential for a higher profile.
“My top complaint from fans on MySpace is that the show is too short,” he says. “So I frequently give them [Yasui's] number. I guess Fox listened.”
Feresten is also buoyed by the recent success of some of his show's comedic clips on the Web. A “Little Bill O'Reilly” character has built a strong Internet following, and the show's sendup of an elderly woman following DTV transition instructions is the most-viewed clip on Hulu (see BCBeat, p. 8).
“I feel the writing on this show is strong, as it's obviously working on a level playing field online,” he says. “So I'm hoping a little more exposure will make the show pop.”
As for the six hour-long shows themselves, Feresten, executive producer Mike Gibbons and the staff are just starting to plot out formats and attack the booking.
Feresten says he wants to start with a timely monologue, and then have a big guest and a big musical act in each show. He'd like to work the network connections and land someone like 24's Kiefer Sutherland or an American Idolpersonality.
Four of the episodes will tape Thursdays to run the following Saturday; the other two will be double-taped in advance of their Saturday airings