Still the king, Arsenio Hall lays down crown

May 27, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

It probably doesn't matter any more, this being the last day of "The Arsenio Hall Show," but the record ought to show that even as a lame duck, Hall owned late-night talk show TV in Baltimore.

The Nielsen ratings for the May sweeps month were released yesterday, and Baltimore viewers tossed one last bouquet at the A-Man -- again making him a clear No. 1 in the late-night war with David Letterman and Jay Leno.

The numbers show that Hall was the favorite in 58,000 area homes, while Leno was viewed in 45,000 homes and Letterman in only 36,000. All three comedian-hosts finished behind Ted Koppel's "Nightline," which was seen in 84,000 homes here each night.

Baltimore was Hall's strongest market in the country.

The show did well in many cities right to the end. It did especially well in what some programmers call "The Cosby Belt" -- such cities as Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta and Detroit, which have large black populations. The term is intended as one of respect and comes from the tremendous ratings Bill Cosby generates in those cities for any show to which he's connected.

You can't talk about "The Arsenio Hall Show" without talking about race. For one thing, race is the context in which Hall has chosen to talk about the show's ending.

"I hope what I've brought to America is a keyhole that they can peep through and look at a culture other than their own and not be afraid," Hall said in an interview this week with Black Entertainment Television (BET). "Because, some white people, the only black person they know is the person who works with them or the person they saw on the news with a coat over their head going into jail."

The BET interview was the only one Hall was doing, said his spokeswoman, Paula Askanas.

Opening up the very white, very male world of Johnny Carson to a more diverse range of voices is one of the great accomplishments of Hall's five years in late night.

Some of the most memorable shows were connected with issues of race.

Remember when the Mandela Choir was assembled in February 1990? Frankie Beverly and Maze, Nancy Wilson, David Crosby, Melissa Manchester and others joined voices to call for the release of Nelson Mandela, who was then still in prison in South Africa.

Or how about the annual shows on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., like the one in 1991 with Maya Angelou reading poetry and a performance by the Give Peace a Chance Choir? That group included Andre and Sarah Crouch, Tony Bennett, Al Jarreau, Little Richard and Bebe Winans, to name a few.

But the show wasn't all issues and seriousness. Not by a long shot. Remember when Whitney Houston led Hall on a tour of her home? He started laughing as she opened a kitchen drawer to show some pots to the camera.

"Why you all laughing?" she asked.

"Because we know you ain't never seen those pots before," he said teasingly, as Houston herself started laughing at the artificiality of trying to come off as someone intimate with the kitchen.

What about all the fun last August, just down the road in Derwood, when Hall's show was taped in the suburban backyard of the Payton family, who had won Hall's "In the House" concert?

Hall brought more women and younger artists to the table, too.

Rosie O'Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres and Margaret Cho are three women who credit Hall with helping them get established as stand-up comics. Elizabeth Taylor never did "The Tonight Show," but she did Arsenio's in 1992, and she cranked her arm to acknowledge the barks from the audience when she came on stage.

Hall also brought the first openly gay comic to late night when he booked Lea DeLaria for her national TV debut.

Bill Clinton understood the messages of inclusion and support for cultural diversity that he was sending when, in June 1992, he donned sunglasses and fought his way through "God Bless the Child" on his saxophone on Hall's show.

One last thing about Hall that, for the record, ought to be set straight: He did not get canceled. He pulled the plug himself. The stories in April that claimed bad ratings did Hall in didn't get at the truth.

Hall's ratings have been down in many cities since September, but not necessarily because he was any less popular. They were down because of the way TV networks do business.

"The Arsenio Hall Show" is a syndicated show, which means it was sold on a station-by-station basis by Paramount, the studio that produced it. "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Chevy Chase Show" are/were network shows.

When those shows came on in August and September last year, most CBS and Fox affiliates that carried Arsenio Hall at 11 or 11:30 moved the show back to 12:30 or 1:30 a.m.. The networks demanded the change because, obviously, more people are awake and watching TV at 11 or 11:30 than at 12:30.

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