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Sajak, CBS Test Fortunes With Late-Night Show

February 25, 1988|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — CBS and Pat Sajak confirmed Wednesday that the "Wheel of Fortune" game show star will take a spin next year hosting a late-hour weeknight talk show opposite NBC's late-night champ, Johnny Carson.

Sajak's as-yet untitled show, which at 90 minutes also will take on the first half hour of NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman," will be produced at CBS' Television City in Los Angeles. It will premiere on next Jan. 9.

Sajak has a two-year commitment from CBS, said CBS programs chief Kim LeMasters, who joined the star at a news conference here attended by CBS Inc. President Laurence A. Tisch and CBS Broadcast Group President Gene F. Jankowski.

The new late-night effort will be the first on CBS since 1972, when it axed the show hosted by Merv Griffin--whose company now produces the high-rated "Wheel of Fortune."

Sajak said he will leave NBC's morning version of "Wheel of Fortune" in December, but will continue hosting the syndicated evening version. (A spokeswoman for Merv Griffin Enterprises said the company had nothing to say yet about who might replace Sajak.)

No format has been set yet for his new CBS-owned show, but he said he'd like to take a leaf from Jack Paar's pioneering late-night NBC efforts and have an "extended family" of guests--not all in show business--who would periodically appear on the show. For that matter, he said, he'd like to have Paar as a guest.

He said he had no "wish list" of other prospective guests, "but I think (anchorman) Dan Rather from this network would make a fascinating interview."

"We were thinking of 'The Wilton South Report,' " he deadpanned when asked about a title for his show. He alluded to Fox Broadcasting's "Wilton North Report," which bombed fast in its late-hour slot last year.

Like most personalities facing the prospect of battling Carson's entrenched "Tonight Show" on NBC, he downplayed any notion that he is out to dethrone the silver-haired entertainer as king of late-night TV.

After agreeing to the CBS deal, Sajak said, he called Carson as a "courtesy." He declined to say what they discussed, but said Carson in the past had "been nice to me" and noted that he'd been a guest on "The Tonight Show."

The idea of the new show, Sajak said, is to build a new audience for CBS in the 11:30 p.m.-1 a.m. time period on weeknights, which is now occupied by "Adderly," "Night Heat" and reruns of series episodes and TV movies.

"There is no attempt on our part here to compete with Johnny Carson," added LeMasters. "Johnny Carson is an institution."

CBS' aim, he said, is to prove that there is room in late-night TV for "more than one talk-show format."

Asked what will become of CBS' current late-night fare, he said that still is being considered.

Near the end of the press conference, a CBS spokeswoman said there only was time for one more question. Sajak raised his hand, and murmured, "Ah, what's for lunch?"

Wednesday's announcement marked another step in the career of the Chicago-born Sajak, an Army disc jockey in Saigon during the Vietnam war. He later earned sort of a cult following in Nashville for the occasional Ernie Kovacs-like stunts he did while a weatherman on WSM-TV there.

He joined NBC-owned KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Burbank as a weatherman in 1977, and moved to "Wheel of Fortune" in December, 1981.

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