No matter where David Letterman ends up, the late-night rival he’ll hurt the most is not Jay Leno but the man who helped bring hip young audiences to the yawn patrol — Arsenio Hall. Already hurting from competition this fall from Rush Limbaugh, Whoopi Goldberg, and the revamped Tonight Show, Hall has suffered a 15 to 20 percent ratings drop in the last year. Adding Letterman and, later in the year, Fox’s Chevy Chase to the crowded late-night arena means Arsenio might soon be woofing his last.
Ironically, the A-man is the victim of his own success. It was Hall who first proved that a cool style could succeed in the slot traditionally ceded to Johnny Carson, and now that he has paved the way, many want to follow. In addition, says Bishop Cheen, a media analyst at Paul Kagan Associates, the young, upwardly mobile viewers Hall originally attracted are now at the root of his troubles. ”Arsenio’s appeal is to the very group that gets excited about something new, and he’s in danger of becoming something old,” Cheen says. ”He’s not the brightest and newest face. He’s not breaking new ground like he did four years ago.”
Responding to reports that he’s sinking, Hall recently took out a splashy ad in the trade magazine Electronic Media claiming his show drew 56 percent more 18- to 34-year-olds during October than Leno’s did. An NBC spokeswoman says that because of World Series delays, October was a bad month for Leno, but in the national Nielsens from Sept. 28 through Dec. 6, the Tonight Show had a 4.5 rating compared with Arsenio‘s 2.8. Hall had no further comment on Leno’s fall ratings or his own.