Forget Jay Leno. Should NBC's David Letterman jump ship to CBS, his toughest late-night showdown may come with Arsenio Hall.
Of the 205 stations that carry the syndicated "Arsenio Hall Show," 35 are CBS affiliates. And some of them are in such heavyweight markets as Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and Cleveland.
If Mr. Letterman accepts CBS' reported two-year, $32 million deal, "Late Night" would be guaranteed the 11:30 p.m. time slot he covets. Which means some affiliates would have to bump Mr. Hall to a later, less desirable time or risk CBS's wrath by delaying Mr. Letterman.
Industry experts predict most will choose the former option. Mr. Letterman would give CBS stronger ammunition against Mr. Leno's "Tonight Show" on NBC than CBS' lame "Crime Time after Prime Time" lineup. Also, CBS pays affiliates to carry its shows. Stations buy syndicated shows.
Dana Freedman, vice president of Arsenio Hall Communications, isn't sweating bullets. Yet.
"If we worried about conjecture and speculation, we wouldn't have time to produce our show. We're looking as good as we've ever looked. We've never had a stronger lineup. I would venture to say most stations would remain true to a proven commodity. And Arsenio is a proven commodity."
Mr. Freedman acknowledges, however, that Mr. Letterman would be a more formidable head-to-head competitor than Mr. Leno. Both Mr. Letterman and Mr. Hall attract young, hip viewers, although Mr. Hall's audience tends to be more female than Mr. Letterman's. Mr. Leno's core viewers are older and male.
The two men are not pals, "but Arsenio says only the most flattering things about Dave," Mr. Freedman says.