HOLLYWOOD — HOLLYWOOD -- No official fight bell will clang when the two latest entries in the late-night talk-show arena, "Vibe" and "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show," square off tonight.
But publicists, agents and talent managers are getting their scorecards ready for what they say will be one of the fiercest late-night showdowns since CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" first went toe to toe with NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in 1993.
"Vibe" and "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show" -- both syndicated one-hour programs -- are competing to put the funk back in late night, employing comedy, music and fashion to bring an urban flavor to the post-prime-time period missing since Arsenio Hall ended his talk show in 1994.
The two shows will compete directly against each other in some major markets. In Baltimore, however, both will be shown on WNUV (Channel 54). The Wayans show will air at 10 p.m. followed by "Vibe" at 11 p.m. The shows will run on weeknights except when pre-empted by Orioles baseball.
"Vibe" is the latest venture by entertainment mogul Quincy Jones and is spun off from his popular urban music magazine of the same name. The host of "Vibe" is Chris Spencer, a relatively unknown comic and actor who Jones says is destined to be a big star.
"The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show" marks the return to television of the creator and star of "In Living Color," the Emmy Award-winning sketch comedy series that aired on Fox from 1990 to 1994 and helped launch the careers of Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier and Damon Wayans, among others.
On the surface, "Vibe," from Columbia/TriStar Television Distribution, and "Keenen Ivory Wayans," from Buena Vista Television, have much in common. Both are being produced by major black entertainers with impressive track records. Both have black comedians as hosts. Both are taping in Los Angeles, only miles apart. And both shows use the term "cutting-edge" in publicity materials to describe their content and attitude. And in many cases, they are going after the same top-name film, television and movie stars for guest slots.
("Vibe's" opening-week guests are said to include singer Brandy, R&B; group Blackstreet, actors Mel Gibson and Jimmy Smits, supermodel Naomi Campbell and basketball star Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Wayans camp declined to name its guests.)
Most important, the two shows are jockeying for the same young, hip audience -- one that tends to prefer sitcoms, cable programs or no TV at all to Letterman and Leno. The audiences for those late-night mainstays, insiders say, include only about 8 percent blacks and skew toward the upper range of the 18-to-49 age demographic coveted by the networks and their advertisers.
"Since Arsenio went off the air, there has not been a late-night entertainment talk show that takes the urban perspective in the choosing of their guests or of what's going on with current events," said David E. Salzman, an executive producer of "Vibe."
Wayans, in a separate interview, said: "There is an audience out there that is being underserved. Even the audience that is being served is not that happy with what they're getting."
But those similarities have fueled speculation among insiders about whether two urban-flavored talk shows can have enough mainstream appeal to survive.
With the arrival next year of a variety-talk show from Twentieth Television with Laker legend Magic Johnson -- amid reports of turmoil on the set of "Keenen Ivory Wayans" -- several are predicting that either "Vibe" or "Wayans" will meet the same fate as short-lived post-Hall shows emceed by Chevy Chase and Stephanie Miller.
Meanwhile, producers for the respective shows have been working to get an early edge by frantically pulling together various comedic and musical elements into their shows while aggressively wooing A-list stars and acts to appear -- preferably before they appear on the rival's program.
With "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show," the host, 39, who also is the executive producer, finds himself in an ironic spot. On "In Living Color," he often did a wicked impression of Arsenio Hall, complete with inflated rear end, oversized teeth and outrageous mannerisms. Hall was reportedly not pleased with the impression.
"Now I hope some young comic doesn't figure out a way to do me," joked Wayans, who has concentrated on feature films since leaving "In Living Color." "If he does, I'll have to have him on the show. When you dish it out, you have to be able to take it."
The arrival of the two shows is being applauded by urban music industry executives, who envision more exposure for their artists than has been available since Hall's departure.
Insiders seem to be divided over which show has the greatest chance to succeed. "Vibe" is being aired on more stations -- 202 (covering 97 percent of the country) vs. 140 (covering 90 percent) -- but "Keenen Ivory Wayans" may benefit from stronger lead-in programming on its outlets, most of which are with Fox.
Some say Wayans has an advantage because of his "In Living Color" legacy and because he is better known than Spencer.
Other pundits have said that "Vibe" has the edge, if only because of Jones' dazzling list of contacts and his track record with stars Michael Jackson, Will Smith and numerous others.
What: "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show" and "Vibe"
When: 10 p.m.-11 p.m.; 11 p.m.-midnight, respectively
Where: WNUV (Channel 54)
Pub Date: 8/04/97