HOLLYWOOD — When the Fox Broadcasting Co. named Chevy Chase this week as its late-night host starting next year, it took a major step toward recognition as a full-fledged TV network.
Despite such hits as "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children," Fox has been sorely lacking in two areas that help define a network: a news department and a late-night presence. It has recently stepped up its development of a news division as well for its 137 stations.
With its proven ability to upset TV's powers-that-be -- it outbid the Big Three networks for the Emmy Awards and counter-programmed "The Cosby Show" with "The Simpsons" -- Fox coolly lobbed its contender into the competition to succeed the retiring Johnny Carson as king of the midnight hour.
Mr. Chase is not expected to launch his one-hour series until summer or fall, 1993. But somehow it feels just right for this master of eternally youthful silliness, wit, biting intelligence and TV moxie to be paired with the risk-taking, off-the-wall -- and profitable -- Fox network.
"One of the first things that came to my mind was to have Rupert Murdoch [the owner of Fox] be the bandleader," says Mr. Chase.
With Mr. Carson's leaving "The Tonight Show" May 22, Mr. Chase's entry already is shaking up a field that heretofore had focused on the coming muscling among Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, David Letterman and Dennis Miller -- plus the new, fall late-night series of Whoopi Goldberg, conservative ringmaster Rush Limbaugh and a former Philadelphia talk show host Jane Whitney.
Mr. Chase's credentials for the competition are impeccable. Before turning film star, he was associated with such groundbreaking, experimental TV series as "Saturday Night Live" and, before that, the Smothers Brothers show and PBS' "The Great American Dream Machine."
Some viewers may have forgotten that he was the first major star to emerge on "Saturday Night Live," which he left after its initial 1975-76 season -- but not before becoming a national figure with his pratfalls and his anchorman role on "Weekend Update" with his trademark line: "I'm Chevy Chase and you're not."
Why did he go with Fox?
"The money. Predominantly the money. No, honestly, I missed [TV]. It's not going to be a talk show. It'll be whatever I do at 11:30. I don't think I'll be doing remotely what Jay Leno does or what Letterman or Arsenio do. The idea was to get back into TV. The whole idea was to have fun. I'd been thinking about it a long time, and I got a call [from Fox] in June or July, and it happened to coincide."
Fox says the six-nights-a-week series "will feature its own brand of subversive, irreverent humor with a variety of comedy sketches and conversations with celebrity guests targeted at a young adult audience."
"The availability of the young adult audience in late night is very high," says Jamie Kellner, president of Fox Broadcasting. "It's a natural place for us to program. It's a perfect chance to promote our other shows.
"We've been looking to get back into late night, but there was never anybody we felt that was totally comfortable for us. Everybody was offered to us. Arsenio was locked up by Paramount. There was nobody we felt was strong enough to take the risk with. But now Johnny Carson's going and the marketplace opens up.
"Carson, who no question is the late-night king today, controls the bookings, but he won't be there anymore. There's a chance to establish a late-night show to last for many, many years. I think our timing is very good. Chevy is such a strong contender that I'm not concerned about anyone else's programming. His brand of humor is Fox-y. We talk about the 18-to-49 demographic."
Says Mr. Chase: "Fox is clearly the next up-and-coming big deal."
Fox's failure thus far to develop a successful late-night series is ironic because that was the only kind of show it had when it debuted as a network in October 1986. The series was Joan Rivers' "The Late Show," but it died after seven months.
After that, various guest hosts tried their hand, and one, Arsenio Hall, drew attention -- but Fox let him get away. There followed a short-lived failure called "The Wilton North Report" that lasted less than a month in its attempt at offbeat television. And Fox drew its last breath in late-night television in 1988 with a host named Ross Shafer.
Thus it will be five years between Fox's last late-night attempt and Mr. Chase's coming series. But the timing should work to Fox's advantage because, by the time Mr. Chase arrives, much of the battle for late-night will have been fought, the survivors should be clear -- and the network will have a better idea of how to fight the competition.
In addition, the waiting period will also give Fox's affiliates -- many of which carry the Hall and Miller shows -- a chance to terminate or adjust their contractual obligations with these and other programs as the network attempts to make certain that Mr. Chase has a strong lineup of stations when he debuts.
Fox's series generally are carried on more than 90 percent of the network's stations, which means that independently syndicated, late-night programs will have a tougher time getting on once Mr. Chase arrives -- and especially if he succeeds.
Mr. Chase seems enthusiastic about his Fox series. He doesn't think the basic late-night format of couch, desk and band is sacred: "That's not the way TV has to be at 11:30." And he is pleased at doing the show at 5 p.m., saying, "I told them [Fox] that I want to be home at 7" so he can spend evenings as well as mornings with his family.
It's hard to call Mr. Chase a sleeper in the late-hour sweepstakes; he's too well-known. But his entry into the race is likely to give the other contenders for Mr. Carson's crown some ** sleepless nights.