Leno gets go-ahead for 2 more years in late-night battle

TURNED ON IN L.A. -- Spring Preview

January 08, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

LOS ANGELES — A new contract for Jay Leno, a new series for Patty Duke, a new movie for Farrah Fawcett, and some encouraging words for "Homicide."

NBC, the last-place network, brought much news yesterday to its meeting here with TV critics from across the country. The biggest was it's sticking with Jay Leno for at least two more years in the late-night war.

The official announcement from NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield said only that Leno and NBC had agreed to extend Leno's contract "for several years."

But sources at the network said the deal involves extending the contract, which either side could have ended in March, for two more years, through March 1996.

The contract is a major vote of confidence, and an ebullient Leno was on stage with Littlefield to answer questions about the deal.

"Let's see, last time we were together,you thought NBC was going to announce that I was fired," Leno said, referring to last January when NBC was deciding in a very public way whether to stick with Leno or David Letterman.

"Well, I survived," Leno said.

When asked if there was a raise in salary from the $4 million a year he is currently being paid, Leno said, "No, but I was given a beautiful, suede bag."

Among the talk shows, Leno finishes second to "The Late Show With David Letterman" on CBS. While Leno is averaging a 5.1 rating, Letterman is averaging about a 6.2 rating (each ratings point equals about 940,000 TV homes).

Overall, Leno finishes third in late night behind "Nightline" on ABC, which averages about a 5.8 rating.

"The competition has made everybody better. . . . David is excellent, Ted Koppel's excellent. More people than ever are watching late night," Leno said.

"Look, both NBC and CBS are making tremendous amounts of money off the two shows. . . . It's a great fight, and it's great fun."

Leno said he is starting to feel more comfortable in the "Tonight Show" chair, and, as a result, is taking more chances on air.

"I just have more confidence. At first, I'd sit there and think, 'Do I want to take a chance and do this bit or should I just talk to Tina Louise for another 12 minutes.' Now we're going for it."

Patty Duke also appeared with Littlefield yesterday to announce that she would star in a new hourlong dramatic series starting in the fall on NBC. In the yet-untitled show, she will play a minister living in the Pacific Northwest.

Duke, an Oscar winner, said she "didn't want to do a TV series," but when NBC agreed to film in Idaho where she lives, it apparently was too good an offer to pass up.

Littlefield said, "The lack of a show about religion on TV is a funny void . . . when you consider that there are 50 million families in some form of worship every week."

Littlefield offered no details on Fawcett's new made-for-TV movie,except to say that its title is "The Substitute," it's a western and that it will air in May.

But the announcement Littlefield seemed most excited about yesterday involved the overnight ratings for "Homicide," the cop drama set in Baltimore.

The show scored an 18 rating Thursday night, which translates to about 17 million TV homes.

"That's an outstanding debut. I was just on the ceiling when I saw those numbers," Littlefield said.

But in response to several questions about what NBC plans for "Homicide" beyond the four episodes airing this month, Littlefield was noncommittal.

"We went with the Robin Williams episode first because we believed it would get people into the tent," Littlefield said.

"Nothing would make me happier than a successful run for this series. . . . I'm very encouraged by the debut . . . but we'll have to see what happens. . . . We'll look at all four episodes and hope the audience is there. . . . Then we'll make a decision."

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