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ABC, Fox, UPN mixing it up in late-night

Feb 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

NBC and CBS may have firmed up their late-night schedules, but tensions are starting to build as ABC, Fox, UPN and syndicators weigh their options in the daypart.
After word leaked out that Fox was pursuing Conan O’Brien for a late-night talk show (Mr. O’Brien has since renewed with NBC for $7.5 million per year), sources have confirmed that the network is “desperate to land a star and build its own late-night franchise.”
Despite losing out on Mr. O’Brien, Fox is still intent on pursuing other talent, while ABC’s Bill Maher (host of “Politically Incorrect”) and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart (“The Daily Show”), both of whom have contracts expiring, consider whether to return to their networks or not.
One Hollywood talent agency, which maintains close contacts with Mr. Stewart’s talent management representatives, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, said he heard that Mr. Stewart is close to renewing his deal to host “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central.
Either way, it has become clear that by the 2003 fall season, late-night television could look a lot different than what we see today and a far cry from the days when Jay Leno had only Arsenio Hall to compete with.
At Fox, a debate is already emerging as to whether the network even needs a national late-night series. Sources said that some station managers flipped when they heard about a possible deal with Mr. O’Brien, citing little upside to shifting their current programming, where either off-network series or first-run programs in the vein of “Blind Date” are performing well.
Some managers remember all too well the trouble left behind after the network failed years ago with “The Chevy Chase Show.”
“Who in their right mind would want to give up `Seinfeld’ or a `Blind Date’ for an untested show?” said one station executive. “Even with someone as known as Conan in the slot, we would still likely lose money.”
Katz Television Group VP and Director of Programming Bill Carroll said that stations echoed those sentiments in his dealings with broadcasters.
“The affiliates have told Fox that even if it was Conan, they don’t want it-thanks but no thanks,” he said. “If you want to help us, get better numbers on `Ally’ instead.”
That could potentially put Twentieth Television in the middle of the debate. The syndicator had been mentioned by one Fox network source as a candidate to be charged with nursing the potential network late-night series should a project move forward. The distributor has gotten the attention of network brass with its successful regional rollouts, and should a national series take root, the network may ask its sister company to test the show in several markets beforehand.
Although Twentieth executives would not comment, insiders said that could pose a problem for the syndicator, which currently has off-network runs of “King of the Hill” airing in late-fringe time slots and several late-night projects of its own in development. Those projects would likely be targeted for the potent 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. time slot on the recently acquired Chris-Craft Industries stations, of which only four stations currently have newscasts in that time slot.
Sources said that Fox Station Group Chairman and CEO Mitch Stern continues to support the current newscasts in cities that include Los Angeles and New York, but he is still weighing the option of whether or not a first-run strip may be better suited for the time slot.
Another factor with the Chris-Craft stations may come from UPN, which sources said could take the 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. hour for their network feed as early as fall 2003. Although the chance of that happening is remote, once a decision is made, a late-night project could go through the pipeline quickly to stave off any potential UPN programming.
One name consistently mentioned as a late-night player on Fox is Bill Maher, who is still in negotiations with ABC on the fate of “Politically Incorrect.” As more time passes, fewer people expect Mr. Maher to re-sign for another season. That would then change ABC’s late-night landscape.
As for Mr. Maher, his post-Sept. 11 remarks about the bravery of the terrorists who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the “cowardice” of the U.S. military led to the pullout of major advertisers from “Politically Incorrect.” One New York-based station rep source said ABC’s scheduling of a post-Oscars late-night telecast this year will be hosted by the stars of the daytime show “The View.” In previous years, the post-Oscar honors went to “Politically Incorrect’s” Hollywood-based pundits.
“It’s was a pretty telling sign that the post-Oscar telecast was taken away from `Politically Incorrect,’ because it is one of the top-rated evenings for ABC every year,” said the rep source. “I think it has to suggest that the writing is on the wall for `Politically Incorrect,’ which has been viewed as somewhat of a liability because of the loss of advertisers.”
Mr. Maher’s contract expires in December, and few industry watchers think ABC is looking elsewhere at new shows and talent to fill any holes in early 2003 for its post-12:05 a.m. (ET) time slots coming out of the dependable half-hour newsmagazine “Nightline.”
ABC recently bought a half-interest in Warner Bros.’ “Rosie O’Donnell Show” replacement “Caroline Rhea.” At last month’s National Association of Television Program Executives convention, both distribution and station executives confirmed that “Rhea” would either follow “Incorrect” if Mr. Maher signs a new contract, or replace him outright if the show leaves the airwaves. Eight ABC owned-and-operated stations have already agreed to carry “Rhea” next season.
Also rumored to be in discussions with these networks is Columbia TriStar Domestic Television’s project with former “Talk Soup” host Jon Henson. The studio continues to weigh whether network, cable or syndication would be the best fit for the show, with some analysts speculating that the strip would be an ideal lead-out to any Fox late-night project.
“With his talent, he’s the natural next late-night star,” said Russ Krassnoff, executive VP of CDTD. “We’re very happy with what we’ve produced and believe it’s the perfect venue for him.”