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Saturday Night Liveliness: Battle of the Bands, '96 Style

Television: Roseanne's 'Saturday Night Special' premieres tonight with Melissa Etheridge and Bush while 'Saturday Night Live' counters with Rage Against the Machine.


When Fox's "Saturday Night Special" debuts tonight at 11, executive producer Roseanne will be using pop music as a first line of attack.

For the show's six-week test, Roseanne has lined up some hot pop acts as ammunition in her challenge to "Saturday Night Live," the NBC series that has had a virtually exclusive weekend franchise for more than 20 years.

Tonight's show features two music acts, Melissa Etheridge and Bush, the English band whose combination of hit songs and the hunk appeal of frontman Gavin Rossdale has generated 3 million sales for its debut album.

The strong roster continues next week with Seattle rockers Alice in Chains and touted R&B rookie D'Angelo; April 27 with chart-topping rapper Coolio and rock band Garbage; May 4 with two rising young acts, hip-hoppers the Fugees and rock group the Verve Pipe; May 11 with Stone Temple Pilots and Radiohead; and finishing May 18 with the Foo Fighters and another act to be announced.

"It was very important for Roseanne not to book just established acts, but strong up-and-comers," says Joel Gallen, the show's producer and a veteran of music-oriented television, with credits including "MTV Unplugged" and the channel's "Video Music Awards."

"Her daughters are young and she knows this music, and she wants the show to have a younger and hipper audience than 'Saturday Night Live.' "

Of course, "Saturday Night Live" is hardly rolling over, countering tonight with Rage Against the Machine, the revolution-spouting rock-rap band making its first appearance as it launches its much-anticipated second album. Next week it has the Dave Matthews Band, also launching a follow-up to a hit debut. Then, after two reruns and a May 11 show with an act to be determined, the season-closer--with Jim Carrey hosting--will have Soundgarden, another huge rock band launching a new album.

"It's competition--which is good," says Bryn Bridenthal, vice president of press and publicity for Geffen Records, who booked Garbage's "SNS" appearance.

Don't look for a repeat of the booking wars that hit the weeknight talk shows about five years ago.

"The dealings with these shows have been very civilized," Bridenthal says. "It seems that ugly period has passed. But it's still very competitive to get bands on, and that means the shows will be better and the opportunities for the bands are better. I'd love to have five more shows like this."

But Bridenthal and her colleagues at other companies admit that appearances on shows like this don't mean what they once did, especially back in the pre-MTV day when an "SNL" slot could be a career-maker.

"With MTV and VH1 it's not as special as it once was to see bands on TV," says Audrey Strahl, Capitol Records' vice president of publicity.

There are exceptions. Several years ago a Spin Doctors appearance on "SNL" was credited as the band's breakthrough, while last fall Bush's record sales escalated dramatically after performing on the show. And Billboard magazine charts editor Geoff Mayfield points to an impressive 17% album sales increase for the Cranberries in the week following a February rerun of an "SNL" appearance.

But in a December survey of record retailers by the Macey Lipman Marketing firm, "SNL" failed even to make the list of shows perceived to boost record sales. "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee," retailers said, generally had more direct effect, since its viewers are not routine record buyers.

Any outlet is a good outlet, though. The name value of Roseanne coupled with Fox's youth-skewed demographics has given rise to visions of a new launching pad to stardom--or at least a key piece of a marketing strategy.

"This show could put an act over the top, if it gets the viewership we think it will," says Elaine Schock, publicist for Etheridge and the Verve Pipe. "It may be just one of many components--like radio play, and magazine and newspaper exposure. But a great showing on a program like that can be what makes an act a superstar. Even if you have sales of 3 million, you don't become a superstar until you have all those components."

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