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Beyond the Fringe

MTV: Music Television and FX are savvy programmers that have successfully launched big primetime hits. MTV's The Osbournes
became a pop-culture phenomenon, while FX's The Shield
and Nip/Tuck
appealed to audiences and TV critics alike.

But the two networks recently stumbled with their original forays in late night.

Within a week of each other last month, MTV and FX announced that they were pulling the plug on The New Tom Green Show
and The Orlando Jones Show, respectively. Both doomed programs, hip talk shows, had debuted in June.

It's a minefield

As evidenced by those cancellations, late night is a time period that presents as many challenges as it does opportunities for cable networks.

"It is the most disloyal daypart there is," said Steve Leblang, senior vice president of strategic planning and research for FX Networks. He was referring to the "restless" viewers who tune in to television after 11 p.m.

Yet despite the audience fickleness and the competition — including the standard bearers, NBC's Tonight Show With Jay Leno
and CBS's Late Show With David Letterman
— a wide variety of cable channels are now offering original programming to night owls.

Basic cable is seeking out a young male audience, as well as women, who aren't aficionados of gabfest-meisters Leno and Letterman.

"Anecdotally, we feel the kings of comedy are more male, and that maybe females are looking for something different," said Debby Beece, president of programming for the women's network Oxygen, which has several original shows in late-night.

On Oct. 19, Oxygen's popular late-night offering, Talk Sex With Sue Johanson, will return to the network for a second season. Oxygen has plenty of company in the late-night arena.

Comedy Central has hit gold there with The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, which just nabbed an Emmy Award, and the network recently renewed its late-night Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn.

Swimming, stripping

In turn, Cartoon Network has drawn young adults to its audience with its "Adult Swim" late-night block.

Taking a page out of Cartoon's book, the men's network Spike TV has launched a Thursday late-night original animation block, which is anchored by shows such as Pamela Anderson's Stripperella. Spike TV is also planning to create a block of lifestyle programming for men that would air in late night on Sundays.

Even TechTV has introduced a late-night block of originals that is doing well in the ratings. And in January, Nick at Nite will debut Fatherhood
— an original animated series executive produced by Bill Cosby — and give it a second play at 11 p.m. Saturday following its first airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Late-night viewership is increasing, which is the logical reason for cable networks to try to stake a claim there.

"Late night as a daypart is really one of the few dayparts that is actually growing in terms of usage," said Betsy Frank, MTV Networks' executive vice president of research and planning. "Primetime in particular is either flat or even among some demos, trending down a little bit. But one of the fastest-growing dayparts is, in fact, the overnight daypart."

Nick at Nite recently conducted extensive research on late-night audiences, because two-thirds of its programming airs after midnight. The network tallies a million viewers in an average minute after midnight, according to vice president of research Tanya Giles.

"The audience after 11 o'clock in the overnight isn't as small as one would think," Giles said. "Any viewing after midnight has gotten a bad rap for being just vampires, insomniacs and couch potatoes, but in fact the post-midnight audience is really quite large."

They're active

According to Nielsen Media Research, one out of every five homes is watching TV after midnight. That's an increase of 10% from a year ago — and up a whopping 40% from 10 years ago, Giles said.

And these viewers have active lifestyles, are often entrepreneurial and work a lot of hours — often getting home late, when they turn on the boob tube, according to Giles. Young men tend to have the same late viewing habits.

"It's a matter of their lifestyle," said Comedy vice president of ad sales research Ray Giacopelli. "We're a network that's younger adult, we skew more male and they tend to be late-night viewers.

"They're working later, going out after work. By the time they get home, primetime for them practically starts at 10 p.m."

Giacopelli's theory is that late night opened up and attracted a new audience, when the longstanding "King of Late Night," Johnny Carson, left his Tonight Show

"It was probably 12 years ago — when the Letterman-Leno wars really heated up — that new viewers came into that daypart," Giacopelli said. "Maybe when Carson was there, he dominated and [programmers] sort of backed away. Carson had an older demographic, which was almost counter to the daypart."

Leblang gives Comedy Central credit for having the patience to let The Daily Show
at 11 p.m. build over time, growing to become one of cable's biggest success stories in late night. He pointed out that The Daily Show
(originally hosted by Craig Kilborn) debuted in 1996 with a 0.3 rating, and now seven years later averages a 0.7 or 0.8, according to Nielsen. (Stewart took over in 1999.)

The Daily Show's ratings have increased every year, Giacopelli said. This summer, after some testing, Comedy Central bowed a follow-up show to Stewart, namely Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn
at 11:30 p.m.

"We really wanted to have an original in there," Giacopelli said. "We really wanted a companion piece to The Daily Show. And we wanted to stay away from repeats as much as we can."

Hits that missed

Like Comedy Central, FX has a good share of young male viewers — one reason why it stripped Orlando Jones
at 11 p.m. The show debuted with pretty solid numbers, but couldn't sustain them. Lately, it was averaging a 0.3 rating. FX defended the show and Jones's work as good, but said the program was costly to produce and was just not getting adequate numbers.

MTV's own late-night stripped talk show, The New Tom Green Show, ran into similar problems. In its first week, the show averaged a 1.0 rating in the 12-to-34 demographic. By the end of its term, though, it had plummeted to a 0.3 in that age group.

"In spite of critical acclaim, The New Tom Green Show
was unfortunately unable to sustain the initial ratings success it enjoyed in its earlier weeks," MTV said in a prepared statement.

Any new talk shows face an uphill climb in the late-night TV battleground, according to Kevin Kay, Spike TV's executive vice president of programming and production.

"The problem with talk shows, like Tom Green's show, is that Tom is a great talent, but you're competing against other talk shows in late night, and do you really think you're going to get better guests than David Letterman or Jay Leno?" Kay said. "It's very competitive and tough to break through."

Late-night shows such as Orlando
or Tom Green
must overcome huge challenges in order to succeed, according to Leblang.

"Older viewers tend to go to the same program more often than young people," he said. "So by definition, a younger-skewing daypart [like late night] is more volatile to begin with. And even the most entrenched late-night franchises — Leno and Letterman — the average person only watches about one-and-a-half times [a week].

"If there's an interesting guest, or an interesting topic, they'll stay. The audience basically gives the program five minutes."

Adding to the late-night competition are popular off-network syndicated sitcoms, such as Seinfeld, Friends
and Will & Grace, Leblang added.

Cartoon Network claims it circumvented the problems other cable networks have encountered in late night by counter-programming with relatively inexpensive original animation. Its "Adult Swim" block airs from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Adult Swim started out as just a one-night block on Sundays, and in January was expanded to run from Monday through Thursday as well. Its lineup includes original fare such as the 15-minute Aqua Teen Hunger Force
and Harvey Birdman, Attorney-At-Law.

Needed Nite fans

Mike Lazzo, Cartoon Network's senior vice president for Adult Swim, conceded that late-night is a competitive arena and that the younger viewers the network was looking to attract — aged 12 to 24 and 18 to 34 — are notoriously fickle.

But Cartoon still viewed late night as a daypart in which it could increase the adult audience that was already watching the channel.

"We always knew that there was an opportunity there, similar to what you would see with [Nickelodeon and] Nick at Nite," Lazzo said.

Adult Swim generates a 0.7 rating in the 18-to-34 demographic, which is 120% to 130% above last year, according to Lazzo.

"I think we've been successful there, because we are airing programming in a genre that we air 24 hours a day," he said. "It's sometimes difficult when you're a lot of different things to a lot of different people. MTV and some other programmers out there will try a little bit of this and a little bit of that."

Spike TV, as part of its transformation into a men's network, made a Thursday late-night animation block, "The Strip," one of the planks of its programming schedule.

The Strip airs from 10 p.m. to midnight, and includes not only Stripperella, but Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon
and Gary the Rat, produced and voiced by actor Kelsey Grammer.

In picking its battles, Spike TV thought it would be easier to make some inroads with original programs in late night rather than primetime.

"In the cable business, how hard do you want to compete against [broadcast] network primetime?" Kay asked. "That's a really big bet, to put something an at 8 o'clock or 9 o'clock and go against The West Wing
or all new programming.

"Late night is pretty vibrant space in a way. I don't know if it's been exploited that much."

Getting younger

Spike TV's late-night Thursday block is drawing younger male viewers to the network, according to Kay. First of all, the median age for the time period has dropped to 27 from 43, he said. And the animated shows have increased their key demographic ratings.

Stripperella's ratings for men 18-to-34 are up 150% for its time period, and up 75% for women 18-to-49, Kay said.

Another network with a male-skewing audience, TechTV, is claiming success with the original late-night block it launched roughly six months ago. Since its April debut, the block —from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. — has increased TechTV's household ratings by 40% during that time period, according to executive vice president of programming and production Greg Brannan.

"We really saw late night as an opportunity to make sure we were speaking clearly to that next generation of tech user," Brannan said. "And it's a tech user that uses their gear as much for recreation and entertainment as they do for their business efficiencies.

"It seemed like a very logical extension of our network's focus and what we were doing."

In order to enhance its audience flow, TechTV late last month fine-tuned its late-night lineup. The network's strong-performing video gaming show, X-Play, moved to 11 p.m. from 11:30 p.m. to provide a more solid lead-in to Unscrewed With Martin Sargent, its quirky comedy show.

Young men aren't the only viewers being courted in the witching hours. Oxygen has come up with a breakout personality in Canadian sex educator Sue Johanson. Talk Sex, her one-hour call-in show, seems to have struck a cord with viewers, who are eager to watch the grandmotherly host as she nonchalantly answers very intimate questions.

This season — No. 2 for the live show — Oxygen will move Talk Sex
to the 11 p.m. time slot on Sundays, an hour earlier than its first season.

"We're trying to get a bigger audience for it," Beece said. "The HUTs [households using television] are just generally stronger earlier and we're trying to get her more aggressively positioned."

Oxygen, whose other original late-night programming includes Bliss, will also be running repeats of Johanson's Canadian show on weeknights at midnight.

Ellen in the air

And adding to its late-night lineup, Oxygen this summer also acquired The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which is airing at 11 p.m. weeknights one week after its premiere in daytime first-run syndication.

Oxygen believes there are female viewers to be found in the late-night time period, not just young men.

"We thought women were underserved there and that was an opportunity to reach them with something different," Beece said. "At that hour, everyone is kind of tired. You're winding down. And you're looking for a quick hit of something rather than getting engaged in a long movie before you go to bed. "

Talk Sex
is one of Oxygen's highest-rated shows. It ratings have been in the 0.5 range, with its highest number in the third quarter hitting a 0.7.

In a testimony to her show, Johanson has become one of Oxygen's most popular and recognizable personalities.

"When she comes to New York, she can't walk down the street [without being recognized]," Beece said.