Reasons to stay up: more late-night talk shows in the works

August 03, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Just what we need: Another new TV talk show debuts tonight.

"The Late Mr. Pete," starring Pete Chaconas, starts a Monday-through-Thursday run at midnight on cable channel +V USA.

Pete who? The late Mr. What? And who are all these talk show hosts popping up all over the place and why are they saying such terrible things about each other anyway?

"The Late Mr. Pete" is not a bad, little, low-budget, quirky, nutsy, Ernie-Kovacs-homage, kind of cult show. But it's far more interesting for what it's part of than for what it is. It's part of the explosion of talk shows debuting and often getting canceled, accompanied by such fierce in-fighting among hosts and producers for slices of a fragmented audience that late night is becoming the Beirut of TV time periods. It's part of the Talk Show Wars.

Drawing the latest battle lines are "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "Late Night With David Letterman," "The Arsenio Hall Show," and "The Dennis Miller Show," which was canceled last month but will remain on the air through Sept. 11.

Besides "The Late Mr. Pete," a new show from Garry Shandling is scheduled to debut this month. "The Larry Sanders Show," which starts its 13-episode run (with multiple replays) on HBO Aug. 15, is a parody of late-night talk shows with Shandling playing the host, Larry Sanders.

Then, Whoopi Goldberg is slated to arrive in syndication next month with her half-hour-a-night of talk. In September 1993, Fox will roll out Chevy Chase's late-night talk show on all its affiliates.

And, as they say, that ain't the half of it.

Letterman and ABC are talking about his leaving NBC to start a new show on ABC because he's still mad about NBC's choosing Leno instead of him to replace Johnny Carson. And NBC has just signed Dana Carvey to start a talk show on NBC if Letterman does that. Letterman's contract with NBC expires in April 1993, and Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, sounded if he was ready to bite the bullet and let Letterman walk in a recent press conference.

If all that action and potential movement isn't enough, there's the flurry of cross-talk and cross-fire among the hosts and producers. Since Carson stepped down at the end of May, it's been the Mean Season on talk shows.

There was Hall's assaults on Leno recently: "He used to be my friend, but now I think he's a . . ."

And, though Leno has not responded directly, he has brought shockjock Howard Stern on "Tonight," and Stern has responded for him. Stern called Hall a "moron." Heating things up even further, Stern called Doc Severinson and Ed McMahon, Carson's supporting players, "two idiots" and "no-talents."

There has been a lot of other sniping on and off the air.

Most of the latter has been among producers and staffers of the shows eager to say awful things off-the-record about the competition. TV critics and reporters in Los Angeles recently for the fall preview press tour were besieged with such offers of "inside" information.

The neat and simple explanation for all the lunacy is Carson's retirement: The king is dead and the kingdom is up for grabs.

It's neat, but it's incorrect. There wasn't much of a kingdom left as recently as last spring. Carson's audience was shrinking -- and what was left was old, white and male. Hall was beating him soundly in demographics in many cities. TV Guide this week confirms that the audience was so small NBC wanted Carson out. That wasn't all Carson's fault. The TV landscape had changed dramatically in the past decade from broadcasting to one huge audience to narrowcasting and niche programming.

But Carson's departure is part of the mosaic of reasons behind the talk show wars -- specifically the bad blood between Hall and Leno.

Whereas, Carson was booking older guests, Hall and Leno are basically going after the same stars. The result is a booking war in which guests are made to understand that they should stay off Hall's show if they want to be regular guests on "Tonight" and vice versa.

Furthermore, Hall and Leno are both doing it to others. Carol Propp, a former talent booker for Miller, told TV Guide the booking battle was one of the reasons Miller's show went under -- they couldn't compete for top guests. "Initially, both shows gave celebrities the impression that if they did our show, they wouldn't be able to do their shows for a long time," Propp said.

The behind-the-scenes booking wars and other, smaller matters have led to the public dust-ups. The other matters include Leno's wanting to be the political comic, but the big political moment thus far has gone to Hall with Bill Clinton's appearance on his show in June.

Another development to turn the heat up on all the shows is the demise of Miller. When Ron Reagan's talk show bit the dust earlier this year, no one paid much attention; Reagan was not considered much of a talent. But Miller was a big deal. When things started looking shaky for him, people started to worry about their own futures.

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