Jon Stewart, the host of a 6-month-old midnight talk show on MTV, received an early morning wake-up call from his manager Wednesday. The New Yorker was fast asleep in a Santa Monica hotel, where he has been staying while shooting scenes as an in-line skater in a comedy film being directed by Nora Ephron.
Barry Secunda told Stewart that he had made the front pages of Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. They were touting him as the hip replacement for late-night talk-show host Arsenio Hall, who pulled the plug the day before on his low-rated, syndicated program after five years for Paramount Domestic Television.
"Jon was just dumbstruck," Secunda related in an interview later.
Stewart does have a meeting scheduled next week with Paramount--which was recently acquired by Viacom Inc., the parent company of MTV Networks--but it had been arranged before Hall announced his bailout. Secunda said there have been no discussions--and certainly no deal--with Paramount to take over for Hall.
Yet TV station groups report that Paramount was talking to them Wednesday about plans for a new talk show starring Stewart.
"Absolutely," said Jack Fentress, programming vice president for Petry Television, which consults a group of 115 stations on programming decisions. "Paramount is out on the street now, with certain station groups, trying to put deals together to hold on to Arsenio's time slots. I got a call from Paramount a couple hours ago about it. They don't have a tape of the show yet, but they say they will in a week or 10 days."
After months of relative calm in late-night television, where nearly $500 million a year is spent in advertising, Hall's abrupt decision to leave--announced Monday--has stirred up a new storm. Hall, once a dominant force in the field, will broadcast his final original show on May 27 before going to reruns through the summer.
Now, two late-night syndicated entries scheduled to debut in the fall are stepping up their efforts to secure Hall's time slots on 160 stations across the country. "Last Call" and "The Newz" are both half-hour comical takeoffs on the day's headlines, aimed at young adults and designed to serve as counter-programming to local news and talk shows.
"We have already received six or eight new markets since Arsenio's announcement," said Barry Thurston, president of Columbia TriStar Television Distribution. Propelled by the momentum, he gave a firm production commitment this week for 90 episodes of "The Newz," featuring an ensemble cast performing sketch parodies of news events. "About 30% of our lineup of stations now carry Arsenio Hall. So this will affect us quite dramatically."
"Now that he's gone out of business, it never hurts to have an extra customer available in the markets to which we're selling," said Shelly Schwab, president of MCA TV, which is syndicating "Last Call." "Many stations now have an hour hole to fill, and those stations will naturally contact those distributors who have developed shows for late night."
Created by Brandon Tartikoff, the former president of NBC Entertainment, "Last Call" features panelists in a studio offering humorous commentary on current events and interviewing celebrities.
Other syndicated programs competing for time in late night include the new magazine series "Entertainment News Television," "Top Cops," "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol" and a host of existing magazine, tabloid and talk shows.
Hall's contract with Paramount was up at the end of the year, and most in the syndication industry expected his show to be canceled then because of a steady decline in ratings and profits. But his decision to leave now, on his own timetable--"He wasn't going to ride a sinking ship," one insider explained--seems to have caught the industry off guard--including Paramount, where executives have refused to comment on the situation all week.
Secunda and others said they were amazed to hear that station groups were speaking to Paramount about a syndicated talk show hosted by Stewart for September. Normally, a new syndicated show might begin development nearly a year before its debut.
"If the show was that good, or if this guy was that hot, Paramount would have done either one of two things," said a competing syndicator. "They would have (either) designed a show for him before this, or they would have held him for January, 1995, in order to give him a complete shot. What they're doing is damage control, no matter who they choose to succeed Arsenio. I defy anyone to mention a successful show when someone has force-fed a personality to keep the time periods tied up."
A Paramount talk show featuring Stewart would be a natural evolution, following Viacom's $10-billion acquisition of Paramount Communications Inc. in February to form a global colossus. "Obviously this is the first step in the Viacom-MTV-Paramount synergy, of which we will see a lot more," said Dick Kurlander, an executive with Petry Television.