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Are the Dog Days Here for Arsenio? : Television: The future looks uncertain for the syndicated talk-show host after a drop in the ratings this year.

March 10, 1994|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The head of a prominent Los Angeles public-relations agency was talking this week with a colleague about the best talk shows on which to showcase one of their celebrity clients. The name of late-night host Arsenio Hall came up.

The "buzz," they agreed, was not good.

"The ratings on Arsenio are down this year," said the executive. "In this business, we deal with perception all the time, and the perception is that when it comes to late night, it's just a two-person race between (David) Letterman and (Jay) Leno."

That perception is growing among some public-relations executives, advertising buyers and studio executives. They believe that declining ratings, controversy over the recent appearance of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, growing late-night competition and Hall's contract running out this year may mean that "The Arsenio Hall Show" is on its last legs.

Paramount, which syndicates the 5-year-old series, denies that the show is in trouble and says Hall is still attracting a young audience that advertisers want to reach. Hall declined to be interviewed, but he has traditionally prided himself on being the underdog in the late-night arena and said he would continue for the long run.

According to A.C. Nielsen figures, Hall's ratings plunged 24% from January, 1993, to January, 1994, from 2.9 to 2.2, and the number of stations carrying his show dropped from 184 to 160. In the same period, Leno's ratings on NBC's "The Tonight Show" dropped 4%, from 4.8 to 4.6--still double Hall's audience--while Letterman's jump from his 12:35 a.m. NBC show to the 11:35 p.m. "Late Show" berth on CBS resulted in a 115% increase in viewership, from 2.7 to 5.8. (Each point represents 942,000 homes.)

"There's been slippage since 1990, and nothing seems to be turning it around," said one advertising buyer for syndicated shows. "The show is just not that hot anymore."

The negative speculation about the show's future was further fueled this week when KCOP-TV Channel 13 announced that it would bump Hall next month from 11:30 p.m. to midnight, using reruns of "Night Court" at 11:30 instead.

"Over the last three years, the show has dropped in terms of its ability to generate advertising revenue for our station," said KCOP general manager Rick Feldman. He added that reruns of "Roseanne," which precede Hall at 11 p.m., "were doing quite well and we felt we needed another sitcom to follow 'Roseanne.' "

Several show business insiders said that while Letterman's Top 10 list or Leno's jokes may be fodder for discussion around water coolers, there is little talk of Hall's monologues the next day. Indeed, the biggest stir that Hall has caused in several months may have resulted in a backlash.

Farrakhan's highly publicized appearance during the critical February sweeps did not help Hall's ratings or the perception that he was in trouble and in need of a hook to draw viewers. Although national figures for the Feb. 25 appearance alone were not available, "The Arsenio Hall Show" averaged a 2.3 rating for the week, which is consistent with its usual rating.

In addition, Hall, once very accessible to the media, refused to talk to journalists about the Farrakhan booking, either before or after the show. He also barred the press from the taping, with spokespersons explaining that Hall wanted to have a "normal" atmosphere for the taping. He was criticized for not asking Farrakhan pointed questions about his views toward Jews or about anti-Jewish remarks by one of Farrakhan's former aides. Jewish organizations and several celebrities, including Whoopi Goldberg and Tom and Roseanne Arnold, said they were troubled by what they saw as an uncontested forum for Farrakhan.

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Speculation about Hall and his future is likely to intensify in the coming months. His contract with Paramount expires at the end of the year, and there will be additional late-night competition come fall from two new syndicated series, MCA's "Last Call" and Columbia TriStar's "The Newz." It's possible he could fold the tent to pursue other show business interests, such as acting or producing motion pictures.

Still, several studio officials and public-relations executives maintain that Hall is the victim of a "win-or-lose, all-or-nothing" scenario largely perpetuated by the media.

Ken Solomon, executive vice president and general sales manager for rival Twentieth Domestic Television, said, "Of course 'The Arsenio Hall Show' is not what it once was. But it still does well with its core viewership. Everyone is now splitting that younger audience that Arsenio once had all of."

"Arsenio is absolutely a thoroughbred and a winner," said David Brokaw, president of the Brokaw Co., a public-relations agency. "Despite what my colleagues may be saying, he is still a top booking when you have an album or a film to sell. When you look at what he's done and what's he accomplished, it's impossible to call him a failure. He's still got a solid audience."

His supporters note that Hall outlasted Chevy Chase's short-lived late-night venture on Fox this season, and Paramount officials said that in 10 markets where Hall's show goes head-to-head with "The Tonight Show," Hall is the winner with women 18-34.

"He has a loyal young adult following that will follow him anywhere. And nothing matters but demographics," said KCOP's Feldman.

Even the public-relations official who was bemoaning the lack of "buzz" about Hall said he was only downgrading the show, not writing it off. "We've had plenty of clients on Arsenio, and we're not saying we're not going to put more of our clients on there," he explained. "But he's not going to be high on our list when we're putting together our media schedule."

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