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Television : Are You Really Ready for the Late-Night Talk-Show Wars?

August 29, 1993|DANIEL CERONE | Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer. Jane Hall, a Times staff writer based in New York, also contributed to this story

In Times Square, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno's massive mug, pasted on a 25-by-75-foot billboard, is grinning down over New York like a Cheshire cat beneath the slogan "America Is Standing Up for Jay." Similar outdoor billboards are posted in a dozen major markets throughout the country, substituting the name of the local city for America .

Every night on 2,300 United Artists movie screens nationwide, Chevy Chase gently reminds theater patrons to visit the concession stand, not smoke and, oh yeah, not forget his new late-night talk show. A life-size cardboard standee of Chase in 40,000 supermarkets across the country gives a less subtle pitch for "The Chevy Chase Show," which premieres Sept. 7 on Fox.

CBS viewers can't miss David Letterman's barrage of on-air promotional spots--80 of them in all--featuring Letterman standing in front of the network's time-honored eye logo. "Don't you think that CBS eye thing is a little creepy?" he says in one spot. In another he says, "If you remove the glass from your TV set, you can feed me peanuts."

Welcome to the dawning of a new age in late-night television. For four decades now the nighttime landscape has been dominated by one huge pillar in "The Tonight Show." That all changes Monday night at 11:35, when Letterman goes up against his former network, NBC. For the first time, the broad appeal Leno brings to "Tonight" will be seriously challenged by an established talk-show host with a fiercely loyal following.

And there's more to come. The next week, Chase will premiere his new 11 p.m. show on Fox. To discourage viewers from switching over to the other hosts' opening monologues--or to the start of Ted Koppel's "Nightline" on ABC, the highest-rated series in late night--Chase plans to do a version of his signature "Nightly News Update" from his "Saturday Night Live" days each night at precisely 11:35.

Then, beginning Sept. 13, newcomer Conan O'Brien will keep NBC's "Late Night" series alive when he takes over Letterman's old 12:35 a.m. time slot. In six months, CBS plans to introduce a similar 12:35 a.m. talk show to follow Letterman and compete with O'Brien. They both join two other hosts who already air heavily in that later time slot: the syndicated Arsenio Hall and Rush Limbaugh.

All these tireless talk-show hosts have one thing in common: They are trying to stake out a claim in the lucrative late-night market, into which advertisers pump more than $400 million in annual revenues. Since Johnny Carson's retirement last year, the field has turned into a chessboard on which challengers are making calculated moves to capture the king's throne--or in Leno's case, retain it:

* Last month, Chase became Frito-Lay's newest pitchman--a position that once belonged to Leno--and he now stars in a TV commercial running on CBS, ABC and NBC. "That way we could advertise Chevy on the other networks," a senior Fox executive said. On Friday night, Fox will beat the drums for Chase by airing his hit 1985 theatrical comedy "Fletch."

* To freshen up "The Tonight Show," Leno unveiled a new animated opening on Monday along with a new set, replacing the Pacific Coast Highway background mural with a downtown Los Angeles skyline.

"If you want to say there's these other shows coming so we're putting in a new set, you can say that," Leno said. Bandleader Branford Marsalis is also preparing a revised theme song.

* On Friday night, CBS-owned stations, including KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles, trumpeted the arrival of Letterman with a half-hour behind-the-scenes infomercial on the making of "Late Show With David Letterman."

"When we lost Dave to CBS, we said, 'Oh, we'll get back at them. We'll put posters up at construction sites all over New York and hand out flyers for Jay as people are waiting in line for Dave's show,' " said a good-natured John Miller, NBC's executive vice president of advertising, promotion and event programming.

"We had elaborate plans--trucks with loudspeakers driving around the Ed Sullivan Theatre," Miller said, referring to the location of Letterman's new show. "It was fun to think about for a while, but then sanity hit. We decided that was not the best thing to do."

On Monday night, after months of planning, positioning and promoting, the games will finally begin. A bevy of A-list talent has been lined up for the next two weeks, including Bill Murray and Billy Joel on Letterman, Garth Brooks on Leno and Goldie Hawn on Chase. Despite all the hype, the shows' hosts and producers all claim to be concentrating solely on the creative aspects of what they are doing.

"I'm trying to write jokes. Everybody else is playing Stratego," Leno said with a laugh.

If It Ain't Broke . . .

Letterman briefly considered making changes in his late-night format when he moved to CBS but decided against it.

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