Carson retirement puts late-night in limbo


The nearness of a new year brings this column's annual roundup of people worth noting in television during the past 12 months:

* Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Dennis Miller and David Letterman:

Late-night just doesn't seem as comfortable without the venerable Mr. Carson, who retired gracefully in May after 30 years on night-light duty.

As for the others, they are part of the roiling ratings race that has produced a comedy of errors. Mr. Miller's syndicated show came and went in 1992. Mr. Leno, NBC's designated Carson successor, is struggling. And Mr. Letterman, miffed by not succeeding Johnny, may soon jump to CBS for an obscene salary.

* Garry Shandling:

What a funny, funny footnote to the foregoing! Mr. Shandling's new fall sitcom on HBO, "The Larry Sanders Show," perfectly skewered the real-life talk show wars.

* Bill Cosby:

Another notable retiree this year, Mr. Cosby closed down his hit "The Cosby Show" in April after eight seasons. But he returned this fall in the syndicated "You Bet Your Life" (at 7:30 p.m. weekdays on WBAL-Channel 11), a remarkably unfunny resurrection of the old quip-and-quiz show that Groucho Marx did so well.

* Tabitha Soren:

The 25-year-old MTV reporter gained notable national status this year when she first anchored the network's intensive attention to the spring Earth Summit environmental meetings in Brazil, then headed the "Choose or Lose" voter registration campaign.

Candidate Bill Clinton was a guest in a notable open forum, as was George Bush. But President Bush waited until far too late -- the last week of the campaign.

Now Ms. Soren is due to be a contributing correspondent on NBC's "Today," while also continuing on MTV.

* Paula Zahn, Tim McCarver and Bob Costas:

Call this the agony and thrill of the Olympic spectacle. Ms. Zahn and Mr. McCarver anchored CBS coverage of the Olympic Winter Games from Albertville, France, while Mr. Costas handled the Olympic Summer Games for NBC from Barcelona, Spain.

Ms. Zahn was OK in France, but Mr. McCarver seemed to be somewhere else, presiding over a usually empty studio with very little to say. In Spain, by contrast, Mr. Costas tightly tied the games together with little tendency toward hyperbole.

* Sally Thorner:

In an unprecedented local news maneuver, longtime ratings leader WJZ-Channel 13 raided rival WMAR-Channel 2 in October, hiring Ms. Thorner away from the anchor desk to head a new 5 p.m. newscast.

The catch: Contractual requirements mean Ms. Thorner cannot be on the air for a year, yet still will be earning an estimated quarter-million-dollar salary.

* Jada Pinkett:

The new cast member last season on NBC's "A Different World" (as freshman engineering student Lena) came home to Baltimore in February to do some good works.

A graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, she served as co-host of the nationally televised Sixth Annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards ceremonies here and helped tape a motivational television special for national distribution.

* Bob Newhart and Delta Burke:

New series surfaced for both these stars this fall, so far with mixed results.

Mr. Newhart's "Bob" on CBS (Fridays) features the button-down comic as a cartoonist, and it grows on you, with a funny cast of regulars.

After her unhappy departure from "Designing Women," Ms. Burke's "Delta" on ABC (Thursdays), in which she plays a wannabe country singer working in a Nashville bar, marked something of a triumph -- except that it was so low-key the network has put it on hiatus.

It will return, ABC says, and Ms. Burke has the clout to see that it does.

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