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Secret Word Is 'Cosby' : Comedian Puts 'Bet' on Show's Quick Success

August 28, 1992|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Television was still in its infancy when Groucho Marx first showed up in America's living rooms 42 years ago, chomping cigars and casting sarcastic asides to viewers in NBC's version of his popular radio quiz show "You Bet Your Life."

Marx's ribald wit--one-hour filming sessions were edited down to half-hour programs, allowing producers to cut out his more risque comments-- stood out in contrast to other shows in the 1950s, making "You Bet Your Life" a huge hit that lasted a dozen years.

Next week, Bill Cosby's resurrected version of "You Bet Your Life" will begin rolling out in syndication across the country in a dramatically different television environment. (The show premieres Monday at 7:30 p.m. on KCBS-TV Channel 2.)

Cable television has extended its reach into 61% of the nation's TV households, with an average of 35 to 40 basic cable channels per home. And Marx's onetime bawdy humor is milquetoast compared to the escapades in such syndicated competition as "Studs," "Bedroom Buddies," "Love Connection," "A Current Affair" and "Hard Copy."

"I believe that these sex, violence, mean-spirited, real-life shows are playing out," Cosby said Thursday, referring to some of the competing programs in the so-called "access" time slot--the period that leads out of local news and into network prime time--in which his show will be airing in most of the country.

"In that time slot, if you could make a fresh situation comedy, there's enough interest out there to make any company who can pull it off successful," he said. "And on 'You Bet Your Life,' when people tell stories about their lives, that's real situation comedy."

Cosby, along with TV producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, who teamed up together on "The Cosby Show," are wagering that "You Bet Your Life" will be a monumental hit out of the gate.

Although the old quiz show may not have much meaning for today's younger viewers, the personality-driven format, they say, is perfect for Cosby's dry, improvisational humor. And he has already carved out a permanent place in TV history as one of the medium's most popular personalities and most powerful producers. "The Cosby Show" helped hoist NBC from third place to first in the 1980s, and has earned more than $800 million in syndicated sales.

To people who wonder why Cosby, who annually hovers near the top of Fortune 500's list of highest-paid entertainers, wants to do another TV series, he says: "I don't understand. People say, OK, he's coming off a television series and he's very successful. But what is it that they want me to do?

"We had planned a year before ("Cosby") was over on picking this particular series, 'You Bet Your Life,' and going with it. It's a fun, fun situation to be in. And I've said many, many times, this is the ideal situation for any stand-up comedian."

Whether Cosby can parlay his popularity into the kind of syndicated success that Carsey-Werner has predicted, however, is the big question. The cluttered, competitive "access" time period that they are gunning for is dominated by three long-running powerhouses: "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy!" and "Entertainment Tonight."

Carsey-Werner has sold commercial time to advertisers on the projection that "You Bet Your Life" will achieve a 10 to 13 rating, which would catapult it into the upper echelon of syndication. In February, "Wheel of Fortune" averaged an 18.9 rating, "Jeopardy!" a 15.4 and "Entertainment Tonight" a 9.9. (Each rating point represents 921,000 households).

"That's not realistic. It just doesn't happen," said Donna Hathaway, director of syndicated services for the St. Louis agency Advanswers. She buys advertising time for corporations but has bought no time on "You Bet Your Life."

"That's a number that I don't think anyone in syndication honestly believes a new show can do," she said. "There's too many programs out there. It would have to knock off 'Wheel' and 'Jeopardy!' right away to achieve that kind of success."

In the Los Angeles market, Cosby literally knocked those two shows to another station. KCBS chose not to renew them when the CBS owned-and-operated stations picked up "You Bet Your Life." Beginning Sept. 8, "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel" will move over to KABC-TV Channel 7; "Wheel" will be slotted opposite "You Bet Your Life."

But John von Soosten, programming vice president for Katz Communications, which advises a network of 200 independent TV stations what programs to buy in syndication, believes "You Bet Your Life" can meet its ratings goals, although he concedes it will be difficult. "When you have a talent like Cosby, you're halfway home to begin with," he said. "Then when you put him in a proven format that's worked in the past, the chances of success are fairly great."

Carsey-Werner's confidence in the series is evident in its financial gamble. Instead of taking "You Bet Your Life" to the networks and getting them to underwrite the production, the company is footing the bill itself to make and distribute 195 episodes this season.

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