No official fight bell will clang when the two latest entries in the late-night talk-show arena, "Vibe" and "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show," square off at 11 p.m. Monday.
But publicists, agents and talent managers are getting their scorecards ready for what they say will be one of the fiercest late-night showdowns since CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" first went toe to toe with NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in 1993.
"Vibe" and "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show"--both syndicated one-hour programs--are competing to put the funk back in late night, employing comedy, music and fashion to bring an urban flavor to the post-prime-time period missing since Arsenio Hall ended his talk show in 1994.
"Vibe," which will air locally on KCOP-TV Channel 13, is the latest venture by entertainment mogul Quincy Jones and is spun off from his popular urban music magazine of the same name. "Vibe's" host is Chris Spencer, a relatively unknown comic and actor who Jones says is destined to be a big star.
"The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show," which will air in Los Angeles on KTTV-TV Channel 11, marks the return to television of the creator and star of "In Living Color," the Emmy Award-winning sketch comedy series that aired on Fox from 1990 to 1994 and helped launch the careers of Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier and Damon Wayans, among others.
On the surface, "Vibe," from Clumbia/TriStar Television Distribution, and "Keenen Ivory Wayans," from Buena Vista Television, have much in common. Both are being produced by major African American entertainers with impressive track records. Both have African American comedians as hosts. Both are taping in Los Angeles, only miles apart. And both shows use the term "cutting-edge" in publicity materials to describe their content and attitude. And in many cases, they are going after the same top-name film, television and movie stars for guest slots.
("Vibe's" opening-week guests are said to include singer Brandy, R&B group Blackstreet, actors Mel Gibson and Jimmy Smits, supermodel Naomi Campbell and basketball star Shaquille O'Neal of the L.A. Lakers. The Wayans camp declined to name its guests.)
Most important, the two shows are jockeying for the same young, hip audience--one that tends to prefer sitcoms, cable programs or no TV at all to Letterman and Leno. The audiences for those late-night mainstays, insiders say, include only about 8% African Americans and skew toward the upper range of the 18-to-49 age demographic coveted by the networks and their advertisers.
"Since Arsenio went off the air, there has not been a late-night entertainment talk show that takes the urban perspective in the choosing of their guests or of what's going on with current events," said David E. Salzman, an executive producer of "Vibe." "Late night has been void of serious conversation, of substance and emotion. As great as Leno and Letterman are, there is a certain sameness."
Wayans, in a separate interview, said: "There is an audience out there that is being under-served. Even the audience that is being served is not that happy with what they're getting. I think people now just have low expectations in late night. It's like, 'Why stay up?' "
But those similarities have fueled speculation among industry insiders about whether two urban-flavored talk shows can have enough mainstream appeal to survive.
With the arrival next year of a variety-talk show from Twentieth Television hosted by Laker legend Magic Johnson--amid reports of turmoil on the set of "Keenen Ivory Wayans"--several are predicting that either "Vibe" or "Wayans" will meet the same fate as short-lived post-Hall shows hosted by Chevy Chase and Stephanie Miller.
"We will be looking very closely at this situation to see what our marketing plan is going to be," said Rick Jacobson, president of Twentieth Television, the syndication unit of Fox.
Jacobson, who said Johnson's show, "The Magic Hour," would have wide crossover appeal, added: "Odds are both [new] shows won't work."
Meanwhile, producers for the respective shows have been working to get an early edge by frantically pulling together various comedic and musical elements into their shows while aggressively wooing A-list stars and musical acts to appear--preferably before they appear on the rival's program.
Some publicists and talent managers say the mudslinging between the two shows has already started, with a resumption of the booking wars that erupted in 1992 when then-"Tonight Show" executive producer Helen Kushnick pressured managers, agents and publicists to book their talent first with Leno or risk being banned in the future.
"I'm hearing from my team that . . . both shows are being very aggressive about booking guests first," said one prominent publicist. "They're very competitive right now. It's not nasty yet, but it has the potential to be."