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‘Can We Talk?’ The Late Night War of Words is On

October 8, 1986

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Caustic comedian Joan Rivers challenges late-night king Johnny Carson on Thursday in television’s hottest war of words in more than a dozen years.

″The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,″ the first step in Fox Broadcasting Co.’s bid to build a fourth TV network, pits Rivers against her former mentor and host of ″The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson″ on NBC.

Rivers’ opening night guests: Cher, Pee-Wee Herman and rock stars Elton John and David Lee Roth.

Carson’s guests: Richard Pryor, Sean Penn and saxaphonist Kenny G.

Rivers’ departure from ″The Tonight Show,″ where she had been permanent substitute host, was not a friendly one. NBC dropped her the day Fox announced her new show in May. Carson was angered that she had not told him of her plans. Rivers felt her work on ″The Tonight Show″ wasn’t appreciated.

Carson has faced and survived many challenges in his 24-year tenure on ″The Tonight Show.″ Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett all tried unsuccessfully to overtake him. The last attempt came three years ago from Alan Thicke with the syndicated ″Thicke of the Night.″ It vanished in less than a year.

Both Carson and producer Fred DeCordova decline comment on the new Rivers show, said NBC spokesman Rob Maynor.

Other fronts remain active in the talk-show wars. ABC has Cavett and columnist Jimmy Breslin alternating four nights a week as talk-show hosts. David Brenner, another Carson protege, has a syndicated show called ″Nightlife.″

During the day, syndicated talk show host Phil Donahue faces tough competition in some markets from newcomer Oprah Winfrey. And Group W is warming up comedian Wil Shriner for a new daytime talk show.

Plus there’s NBC’s ″Late Night With David Letterman,″ Lifetime’s Regis Philbin, Cinemax’s ″Max Headroom,″ and USA Network’s Robert Klein. The only defection came when Merv Griffin ended his long-running show.

The talk-show field hasn’t been this crowded or competitive since Carson, Cavett and Griffin went head-to-head in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and Mike Douglas and David Frost heated up the afternoons.

Rivers fires her opening salvo with a one-hour live show at 11 p.m. EDT, getting a half-hour jump on Carson.

Both Fox and Rivers, however, play down the confrontation with Carson.

″We’re not competing with Carson,″ said Fox spokeswoman Kim Rowley. ″We’re going after a different audience. There are plenty of people out there who don’t watch Carson.″

Fox executives recall what happened two years ago when Thicke was ballyhooed to beat Carson, then fizzled.

Rivers will be seen on nearly 100 stations and is getting good response from advertisers. Her 30-second ad rate of $12,000 is less than half the $25,000 ″Tonight Show″ rate. American Motors, which has never advertised late at night, has signed a $750,000 contract. Toyota, which also buys time on ″Tonight,″ signed a one-year contract.

Rivers will telecast from a 412-seat theater constructed for her show at Fox Television Center in Hollywood. Rowley said tickets for the premiere are ″the hottest tickets in town,″ and none are left for VIPs.

The show will be seen in every major U.S. city except Boston and Milwaukee.

″The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers″ is Fox’s first on-the-air effort linked to its planned fourth network, emerging from media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of Fox’s studios and six Metromedia stations. Murdoch also has lined up affiliate stations that bring the network’s potential market to more than 80 percent of the nation.

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