Chevy Chase at lull in the eye of Fox's promotional storm TURNED ON IN LA.-- FALL PREVIEW

July 13, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles --If you're looking for a red-hot story about how competitive the late-night talk-show scene is going to be this fall with David Letterman moving to CBS, Chevy Chase is not your man.

"I don't care about any of that," Chase said yesterday at a news conference for Fox's late-night entry, "The Chevy Chase Show," which premieres Sept. 7.

"I know Jay Leno -- not well -- but I wish him well. I love Dave; I often watch his show. Arsenio Hall has always been sweet to me when I've been on his show.

"But this competition thing, I have no control over it anyway. So there's no point in making an issue of it. They're all swell guys who can do what they do. And I'll be doing what I do."

Chase spent most of the session acting almost bewildered by all the fuss over Letterman, Leno, Hall and him going head-to-head with millions of dollars at stake.

"Gee, I have no idea," he says when asked why he thought viewers are so interested in late-night TV. "I suppose the whole thing with Letterman moving over (to CBS) could be an important issue. But I really have no answer to it."

Chase's low-key, almost-dismissive tone was jarringly at odds with the promotional jump-start Fox is trying to give the show here during the first leg of the fall preview press tour. And it begs the question whether Chase, who has an established career in feature films to fall back on, has the same commitment to the show as his network.

"The Chevy Chase Show" is clearly the centerpiece of Fox's three-day meeting with TV critics and writers from around the country, taking precedence over any of the network's prime-time offerings.

And the hype is going to build through the summer. Yesterday Fox announced that Labor Day weekend -- which precedes the launch of Chase's show -- will be Chevy Chase Weekend with "News Updates" from Chase, a barrage of promotional messages for the show and the airing of such Chase films as "Fletch."

Lucille Saldany, chairwoman of Fox, explains it by saying, "Late night is a part of the day where Fox absolutely belongs. Our audience is there and looking for the Fox alternative."

Translated from networkspeak, that means there's lots of money to be made in late night -- maybe $40 million a year -- if Fox can find a winner.

Ms. Saldany admits that the "competition will be formidable." But besides Chase's appeal, Fox is counting on his show's early start, at 11 weeknights, to give it an edge over the others. "The 11 p.m. start time against local news -- getting a 35-minute head start on Leno, Letterman and [Ted] Koppel -- is going to be a big plus," Ms. Saldany says.

The early start could also mean more money for Fox, because the overall audience is larger at 11 than it is through the rest of the night.The network currently sells 30-second spots during the first half-hour of the show for $30,000; the price drops to $20,000 at 11:30 p.m.

Furthermore, Fox will have 93 percent of its affiliates carrying the show at 11. That's an excellent clearance rate for a new late-night show. CBS, meanwhile, looks as if it will have less than two-thirds of its affiliates carrying Letterman at 11:35. Right now, Letterman has no home in Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta or Detroit because of standing affiliate commitments to Hall.

But Chase says he wasn't interested in talking about such programming and business matters either.

"In terms of audience . . . I don't know if Fox skews young or old, smart or ridiculous . . . I don't know what skews mean."

Chase did provide some specifics about the show:

* Saxophonist Tom Scott -- former bandleader for the defunct "Pat Sajak Show" -- will be bandleader.

* "News Updates," which Chase created and made famous on "Saturday Night Live," will be a regular part of the show. They may be timed to start at 11:34 just as viewers might be thinking of switching elsewhere to catch a competitor's opening monologue.

* There will be skits.

But overall, Chase sounds like someone who's either playing possum in hopes of not giving away any secrets or who's not been focused on what the show, which is less than two months away from launch, is going to be about.

"No, I haven't called anyone and asked them to be on my show," Chase says of potential guests during the show's first week.

"I'm told by the people at Fox that the first week is important, so I'll do my best to get good guests. But I don't consider the interview portion to be what my show is about."

The question left unanswered yesterday is whether Chevy Chase himself knows what his show is going to be about.

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