'Arsenio' better get better — for Tribune's sake

Arsenio Hall

Arsenio Hall

Is Arsenio Hall’s comeback already on the skids?

One month after its auspicious debut as a nationally syndicated late-night talker, “The Arsenio Hall Show” is showing signs of trouble in the ratings and behind the scenes.

For Tribune Broadcasting, which is a partner in producing the show, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Since its launch Sept. 9, it’s been airing at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday on Chicago flagship WGN-Channel 9 and on the company’s other stations across the country.

At a town hall meeting with employees in Chicago Oct. 2, Tribune Co. CEO Peter Liguori stressed how much was riding on Hall’s ability to deliver late-night ratings.

“This is incredibly important for us in terms of the lead-outs from late news, in terms of us having a little more fire power on the original programming front, when we package ad sales and when we go to cable operators,” Liguori said. “We can try to talk about Arsenio and all of our original programming efforts to explain to cable operators that we’re creating value for them.”

Before introducing Hall via satellite from Los Angeles, Liguori boasted to employees assembled here and tuned in around the country that the show’s debut ratings “were the best numbers for a syndicated premiere in the last seven years.”

Two days later, Neal Kendall was suddenly out as executive producer of the show amid reports that ratings had been dropping off for each of the four weeks it had been on the air. While the search for a replacement goes on, Eric Pankowski, senior vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution, stepped in as interim exec producer.

The decline of more than 40 percent nationally was mirrored in Chicago, where Hall’s show dropped from a 2.5 household rating its first week on WGN to a 1.5. Among viewers between 18 and 49 — the show’s target demo — it dropped from a 1.0 to 0.4, according to Nielsen.

WGN hadn’t been doing well in the 10 p.m. hour with syndicated reruns of “30 Rock” and “Two and A Half Men,” but its numbers for “The Arsenio Hall Show” so far in October have been even lower.

It’s too soon to declare the show dead, but there’s no way it can survive on Hall’s charisma and nostalgia alone. Plagued by miserable monologues (hint: jokes are supposed to be laughed at — not applauded), lame bits and lackluster guests, it needs to get a lot better. And fast.

Hall acknowledged the challenge he faces when he spoke to Tribune Co. employees at the town hall meeting.

“The toughest part of doing the show is realizing that the word ‘business’ is larger than the word ‘show,’ ” he said. “A lot of people love entertainment, but at the end of the day, it’s show business. And you have to understand that to make it the right show. So I often have on another hat that’s not a host hat. It’s a producer hat. And I think that’s the hardest part: The entertainer and the producer finding a synchronicity that works for Tribune.”