Pop music on TV -- Shows like ''Saturday Night Live,'' ''Arsenio Hall,'' and Late Night'' showcase new talent

Want to catch the latest in music? Watch late-night TV. It’s becoming the ultimate showcase spot, not just for mainstream pop but for the provocative and unpredictable as well. Take Public Enemy. Lots of folks were surprised to see the hard-core rappers on last month’s season premiere of Saturday Night Live — including the band itself. ”They hoped it would happen, but they knew it was tricky,” says Leyla Turkkan, who handles Public Enemy’s public relations. So what possessed the show to book the provocative posse? ”We thought it would be the most cutting-edge way to start,” says SNL talent executive Liz Welch, admitting that ”a couple of years ago, maybe we wouldn’t have been able to do them. They’re still controversial, but they’ve evolved.”

The band wants ”to make people realize that hard-core hip-hop is rock & roll,” says Turkkan, noting that one of the group’s goals is to break down musical barriers. Though of course there’s commerce, too: Playing any of the tube’s top late-night shows often translates directly into record sales. Sting, for instance, appeared on Saturday Night Live last January and (according to market research cited by Daniel Savage, director of market research at PolyGram Group Distribution) 200,000 people bought his then newly released album The Soul Cages during the next two weeks because they’d seen him on the show. That’s a good 20 percent of the album’s total sales to date. Being on Saturday Night Live can’t have hurt Public Enemy, either: The group’s new album, Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black, released within three days of the SNL premiere, sold 800,000 units its first week in stores and debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts.

The highest late-night priority for musical artists and their publicists is probably The Arsenio Hall Show. According to SoundData, a company that studies listeners’ buying habits, Arsenio has the most music-conscious audience on cooler-than-prime-time TV. Perhaps the most problematic nocturnal venue is Late Night With David Letterman. That’s because musical guests are almost always required to play with the World’s Most Dangerous Band, the Paul Shaffer-led Letterman ensemble — some of whose members often replace up to half the visiting group. The La’s, a British quartet, were offered a booking before their album was even out in the U.S., but pouty-lipped front-La Lee Mavers declined. ”He felt that because American audiences didn’t know the band, they’d get the wrong impression if they saw only two members,” says Tracy Hill, national director of publicity at PolyGram Label Group.

Six months later, though, half of the La’s did play with Shaffer et al. By then, the group figured, American audiences had learned about the La’s. And the La’s, no doubt, had learned the power of late-night TV.