June 26, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

TALK TROOPS Add Earvin Johnson and his underwhelming The Magic Hour to the list of feeble challengers (including Jon Stewart, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Sinbad, and Chevy Chase) to Jay Leno and David Letterman.

“It’s a tough game, and everyone who tries it learns that quickly,” says NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield, the guy who picked Leno to succeed Johnny Carson. As Littlefield points out, Leno benefited from guest-hosting Carson’s show some 400 times before inheriting the chair, and Letterman spent 10 years in late-night before moving to CBS. “Jay worked with training wheels and Dave had years to hone his skills,” says Littlefield.

So what else is hindering today’s talent pool? “No one’s challenging the format,” says Mitch Semel, East Coast programming VP at CBS, who adds, “and people fall prey to the idea that someone who makes a good guest will make a good host.”

VOYEURS BEWARE Talk about being busted on the job. The California Supreme Court recently decided that producers of reality programming (like Fox’s Cops or those guerrilla-video specials) can be held liable for invading people’s privacy—even if they’re pursuing a “legitimate” bit of news.

The decision grew out of a lawsuit against the defunct syndicated show On Scene: Emergency Response, which secretly recorded an accident victim’s conversations with rescue workers. “No constitutional precedent…gives a reporter general license to intrude in an objectively offensive manner into private places, conversations, or matters merely because the reporter thinks he or she may thereby find something that will warrant publication or broadcast,” the court said.

Although shows like Cops either get releases from subjects or conceal their identities before airing, producers are still concerned about the potential impact of the decision. Says Cops exec producer John Langley: “It represents a backlash against the media. I’m a First Amendment fundamentalist, and any attempt to curb it is dangerous.”

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