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The Dog Pound will woof again: Arsenio Hall is returning to late-night TV.
Two decades after his self-titled show rebuilt the talk genre for a new generation, the 56-year-old comic and recent “Celebrity Apprentice” winner will attempt a major comeback with a nightly syndicated offering starting in September 2013.
Hall is partnering with syndicator CBS Television Distribution and Tribune Co., which will broadcast the 11 p.m. show on 17 of its TV stations, including WGN-TV in Chicago and KTLA-TV in Los Angeles. Those stations, plus six major-market CBS-owned outlets and seven from station group Local TV LLC, will give Hall instant access to more than half the country. Tribune — which hopes to emerge from 3 1/2-year bankruptcy proceedings later this year — also owns or is a partner in scores of websites and operates eight daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times.
“In the end I’m a comic, and nothing fits the talk-show mode like a stand-up comic,” Hall said in an interview Monday. Referring to the crowded field in late-night TV — which includes “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” as well as traditional venues such as “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” — he added: “I know there are a lot of shows, but I think there’s a space for my show.”
Hall’s earlier show was a surprise smash when it premiered in 1989, bringing a youthful energy and diversity to a format that had been dominated by Johnny Carson on NBC’s “Tonight” for nearly 30 years. His studio audience greeted the host by pumping their fists and barking, with the most devoted among them coming to be known as “The Dog Pound.”
Hall dispensed with the formidable desks that had been staples of talk shows everywhere and amiably chatted knee-to-knee with his guests as they relaxed in easy chairs. His status as the only black host in the regular late-night TV wars gave him special access to a burgeoning supply of African-American rappers (then just crossing over into the mainstream), comics and other entertainers, including Eddie Murphy, his costar in the hit comedy film “Coming to America.”
The show reached a peak 20 years ago this month, when sunglasses-wearing presidential candidate Bill Clinton famously blended retail politics and pop culture with a saxophone rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
But the program suffered after CBS in 1993 hired David Letterman to host an 11:35 p.m. show that kicked Hall to an even later hour on many local stations. Hall also caught flak for booking controversial guests such as Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan. “Arsenio Hall” went off the air in 1994.
The explosion of cable programming — not to mention tablets, smartphones and DVRs — has upended the TV business since that era. And the talk arena is filled to bursting: Chris Rock is executive producing a new show, and Russell Brand is set to joinConan O’Brien, Letterman, Leno and many others.
But CBS and Tribune are hoping that Hall can recapture his earlier magic.
“Can you duplicate that again? I don’t know anyone who knows that answer,” said Bill Carroll, vice president at New York-based Katz Television Group, which helps advise local TV stations on programming and other issues. But he added that Hall’s appeal has recently proved to be intact: “People were reminded how engaging a personality Arsenio Hall was and is when he was on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’” Hall won Donald Trump’s reality competition last month, besting other contestants including ex-“American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken and ‘70s supermodel Cheryl Tiegs.
The host will oversee the show with his longtime manager, John Ferriter, and a search is underway to find an executive producer who can manage the production on a day-to-day basis.
Hall — who’d started a family and mostly faded from public view since his show was canceled — decided months ago he wanted another shot at late-night TV. But he realized that to sell studio and station executives on the idea, he would have to reintroduce himself to the public and especially to viewers under 30 who had little idea who he was. The obvious solution was a network reality show such as “Celebrity Apprentice” or “Dancing With the Stars.”
“This could have backfired,” Hall acknowledged. “I could have been on the plane with Cheryl Tiegs saying, ‘Why did I do this? I should have danced.’”
Now, executives have come to see him as a means for reaching viewers ages 35 to 54 — precisely the same folks who fell in love with his show 20 years ago. It just so happens that this demographic also consumes a lot of late-night TV, in contrast to younger adults, who are increasingly bypassing TV altogether in favor of their laptops or tablets.
John Nagowski, president of CBS Television Distribution, which syndicates hits such as “Judge Judy,” “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” conceded that Hall will be re-entering a teeming marketplace. But he added: “No one’s doing anything like what we did before” with Hall’s show. “The advertiser wants 25 to 54. He’s dead-on.”
“It’s risky, but we’re going back to the guy who had the healthiest demos in late-night TV,” said Sean Compton, president of programming and entertainment for Tribune Broadcasting. “This is the only guy who ever gave Johnny Carson a run for his money.”
As for Hall, he says he’s already brimming with plans for the new show, even though it won’t premiere for another 15 months. Some ideas will be new; others will be updates of standbys from the old show.
Take, for example, the Dog Pound, which was a pop-culture signpost of the early 1990s. Hall would like to revive it — with a twist.
“I might,” he said, “come up with another animal noise.”