BUYERS HOPING TO CHOOSE CORRECT LATE-NIGHT SHOWS;NEXT YEAR'S SALVO: ABC INTRODUCES POLITICS TO DAYPART DOMINATED BY COMEDY, TALK

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"War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means."

-Karl von Clausewitz

While von Clausewitz wasn't thinking about late-night television, media planners might bear him in mind during the coming battle for upfront ad dollars.

For a while, it seemed like CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" and NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" were settling into a war of attrition: initial success followed by setbacks and retrenchment. Then, ABC announced plans to follow up a resurgent "Nightline" with the January addition of "Politically Incorrect," currently airing on Comedy Central.

That combination, coupled with the ratings seesaw of the two other contenders, is likely to intensify a fight for a daypart that has been strewn with the remains of ill-equipped combatants for more than a decade.

FAR CRY FROM '92

It's certainly a far cry from the summer of 1992, when "Nightline" host Ted Koppel considered quitting if the program didn't receive more support from network affiliates.

For 1995, "Nightline" recorded a 5.1 rating and a 14 share, according to Nielsen Media Research. Both "Tonight Show" and "Late Show" clocked in with a 4.6 rating and a 14 share. In the February 1996 sweeps, "Tonight Show" finished at 4.7/14, "Nightline" at 4.6/13 and "Late Show" at 4.2/13.

Even before ABC's new entry, late night had already "become much more competitive, much more of a horse race" as a result of Jay Leno's overtaking of David Letterman, says Gene DeWitt, president of New York-based media-buying shop DeWitt Media. "A year ago, CBS could kind of name its price. Now, while they will both command a good price, it will truly be a competition."

While "Nightline's" ratings have only recently caught up, Mr. DeWitt points out, "Ted Koppel is in a class by himself. He has kind of a unique audience [that is] an upscale and educated target. The show is almost invariably sold out."

So far, media buyers appear to be giving "Politically Incorrect" and its host, Bill Maher, the benefit of the doubt.

`HELL OF AN HOUR'

"ABC has so far been unable to capitalize [on `Nightline's' following]. With Maher, they have a very interesting opportunity. They finally have compatible programming," says Chuck Bachrach, exec VP-media resources for Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rubin Postaer & Associates. "Together, it could be one hell of an hour."

And that is certainly how ABC intends to sell it.

"We've always looked for a companion piece [for `Nightline'], a show that would absolutely partner. We feel we've got a perfect match," says Marvin Goldsmith, president of sales for ABC. "After so many years of experimenting we have come up with a show that just feels right."

Mr. Goldsmith says that ABC has yet to work up pricing for "Politically Incorrect": "We haven't been out trying to sell it yet. We are first introducing Bill Maher to the advertising community."

But one media buyer, who asked not be identified, says if history is any guide to pricing, "ABC will stump when they are on top and beg when they are on the bottom."

CONTENT CONCERNS

Mr. Bachrach points out that ABC faces one potential problem in selling the program, either alone or in tandem with "Nightline:" content. The program features an eclectic lineup of guests, some of whom don't hesitate to graphically state their partisan views. Also, Mr. Maher's opening monologues are a far cry from the usually gentle political spoofs that characterize the shows of both Messrs. Leno and Letterman.

For ABC, the content aspect is "a non-issue," contends Mr. Goldsmith. "You are talking about a program that airs at 12:05 a.m."

Doug Seay, senior VP at Hal Riney & Partners, New York, also worries about the content of "Politically Incorrect," but from a different perspective.

"Most of our clients are concerned that [the show] is going to lose its edge," he says. "I hope that Maher is able to maintain that edge and he isn't sanitized by moving to ABC."

Of more concern to Mr. Seay is the number of ABC affiliates at the outset unable to carry "Politically Incorrect" because of existing syndication deals.

"Clearances may not fall into place until well after it launches," he says.

He also finds it a "little strange that `Politically Incorrect' is coupled to `Nightline.' While Bill Maher is a good thing because it doesn't force you to buy Letterman, what people would really want to buy is [a combination of] Letterman and Maher."

WIDER OPTIONS

All in all, in looking forward to the upfront season, Mr. Seay sees a much wider range of options than there has been in recent years-with the resultant impact of lower increases in costs-per-thousand viewers.

"Last year, the increases in late-night were hefty but the ratings really didn't support it. I am not sure how fast this market is going to break. I think [buyers] are going to take a long hard look their options," he says.

While all the networks try to cross-promote prime-time programming with their late-night offerings, "another thing that's changing is that CBS is doing so poorly in prime-time...It is bizarre that the oldest network [in viewer demographics] has the youngest [in] late night," Mr. Seay notes.

Mr. Bachrach believes that even though Mr. Letterman's ratings may be off a bit, it's unlikely that will make much impact on its CPMs since demand for the show's younger demographics remains strong.

"Letterman has always enjoyed more demand than they have delivery," he says. "Leno, on the other hand, has stayed reasonably consistent. NBC in that daypart has never really panicked. They have been the most advertiser-friendly in bad times and good times .*.*. I believe they will raise their rates but they will continue to be advertiser-friendly."

At the end of the day, CPM increases or no, Mr. Bachrach at least believes the late-night marketplace will prosper.

"It has been a misunderstood and underused medium for a long time, [but] it is a fabulous daypart to spend money in. The kids are in bed and you can find older, upscale adults" in the right numbers and at the right price, he says.

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