Jay Leno's late-night war

With that, Leno went on vacation for the duration of NBC's Olympics coverage, and round 1 of TV's highest-stakes ratings war came to an end.

It began in late May, when Johnny Carson abdicated his 30-year reign and Leno, along with his executive producer and longtime manager, Helen Gorman Kushnick, began shaping a new Tonight Show. Charged by NBC with making the audience younger without alienating the Carson core, Leno and Kushnick began an aggressive campaign to turn Tonight into a showcase for youth-appeal superstars (Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and Eddie Murphy have all shown up) as well as a rainbow coalition of cutting-edge performers, like the Black Crowes, Simply Red, and Blue Man Group, the kinds of acts that were formerly in the custody of The Arsenio Hall Show.

''I mean, we have black people in the audience,'' says Leno. ''Yeah, it's still predominantly white, but there are black people there, and black guests, and Hispanic guests, and a predominantly black band. Branford and I don't do fake high fives. I don't do this 'My man!' stuff. But my proudest thing is that the show crosses all racial lines. It looks like what America looks like.''

It also looks like The Arsenio Hall Show, which may partly explain the ferocity of the hosts' turf war. With the music industry increasingly aware that a band's appearance on The Tonight Show can spur record sales, Tonight is cutting into Hall's territory. The clash may be exacerbated by the fact that Tonight coproducer Bill Royce, who books many of the music acts, left Hall's show in the spring to take the job. Competition to get guests first and exclusively has become fierce, and recently staffers for both Hall and Dennis Miller have charged Tonight with trying to snatch celebrities who were already scheduled to appear on their shows and issuing an it's-us-or-them ultimatum to prospective guests.

''Whoever started the idea that this was a war is not being realistic about this business,'' replies Tonight's Kushnick. ''It's just the kind of competition that goes on between the morning shows or Oprah and Phil.''

War or not, the competition quickly claimed a casualty: Miller, whose syndicated talk show premiered last January, was canceled on July 17. After pointedly offering to ''release all my delegates to Arsenio and David Letterman,'' Miller made his farewell appearance-on Hall's show.

''The booking wars exist, that's all I can say,'' Miller told Entertainment Weekly. "I have no agenda-I'm not on late-night TV anymore. But for them to say it doesn't exist-well, I was privy to the whole schematic. It exists in spades.

''Look, I don't even know Arsenio Hall that well,'' he continues. ''I've met him twice. But he's a legitimate human being who doesn't bulls--- you. He's been nothing but classy with me. He's now somebody I want to be better friends with.'' And Leno? ''Jay and I were very good friends at one point,'' responds Miller coolly. ''I don't think I'd talk to him again, nor would he want to talk to me. About The Tonight Show, put it this way: They want to win really badly.''

''Dennis Miller is a good joke writer,'' says Leno. ''The fault of his show was that it wasn't very well produced. But to accuse us of all these things! We weren't keeping people off their show. Do we say to guests, 'We'll give you this and that, we have a bigger audience, we'll fly you in, we'll pick you up in a limo'? Yeah. But please! That's the game!''

Still, the game, as played by The Tonight Show, seems to have alienated an awful lot of people. In addition to Hall and Miller, Leno can cross Doc Severinsen off his Christmas-card list; Severinsen was recently quoted in USA Today as calling the new Tonight team a ''bunch of screwballs. Jay Leno is running around trying to figure out 'How can I get them to like me?' Frankly, I haven't seen anything that makes me want to stay tuned in.'' In addition, there are apparent strains in the relationship between The Tonight Show and its NBC companion Late Night With David Letterman, probably dating back to Letterman's public disgust when he was passed over as Carson's replacement.

''I called Morty (Late Night's co-executive producer, Robert Morton) about six months ago and said, 'Let's get talking so there's no conflict (over guests),''' says Kushnick, with a sad shake of her head, adding that she got no response. But that may be understandable, given speculation that when Letterman's contract expires in April he will jump to another network or syndication. ''With Dave, I'm sorry that this happened. But if he is going to end up being a competitor, what can I do?'' she says. ''I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.''

If Letterman does leave the network, however, Kushnick has already told NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield that the one-hour Tonight Show could expand to 90 minutes to help fill the void. ''All I said was 'If you need us, we can do it,''' she says.

''That was just what we needed to hear,'' says a Letterman insider dryly. ''It's like, 'Here's your hat-what's your hurry?'''

Says Leno: ''Would I do (the 90 minutes) if they wanted me to? I suppose so. That would be kind of a pat on the back.''

In fact, NBC is doing a lot of back patting already. A massive ad campaign in the trade papers has emphasized Tonight's dominance in the Nielsens among the advertiser-beloved 18- to 49-year-old audience. ''We kept more younger viewers up past their bedtime,'' hollered one slogan. The Arsenio Hall Show responded with its own ad, calling Hall ''the future of late-night television'' and pointing to his rising ratings.

Behind the labored spin control, the real ratings story is simply that both shows are doing fine. The Tonight Show is still No. 1; its more than 5 million nightly viewers are roughly level with Tonight's ratings last summer, and there have been slight gains in younger viewers. As for Hall, he has 3.5 million to 4 million viewers and seems to be gaining slowly on Leno. In other words, late-night TV is big enough for both of them. In fact, it may even be big enough to include Whoopi Goldberg, who will enter the fray with her own syndicated late-night show in September.

As for The Tonight Show itself, it's still in transition, on screen and off. Perhaps it's symbolic that Leno, Kushnick, and much of the staff remain in temporary quarters while new offices are being built. And for now, the show is taped on an undersize soundstage while NBC alters Carson's old studio (''We're just bringing it up to code,'' says a network spokeswoman). Leno himself only recently moved into his permanent dressing room. ''He's in Johnny Carson's old one-uh-oh, am I still allowed to say that name around here?'' jokes a security guard, pointing the way.


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