Video: The Joan Vs. Johnny Show

Carson gets a new rival, and a "fourth network" is born

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"Can we talk?" When Joan Rivers blurts out her famous catchphrase, it usually signals a barrage of one-liners. But when the brassy comedian posed a similar query to Johnny Carson on the phone last week, the upshot was quite different. According to Rivers, Carson hung up.

That, it seems, was the end of a beautiful friendship and the start of what could be one of the keenest TV rivalries in many a season. Rivers, who has been the Tonight show's permanent "guest host" for the past three years, announced that she is leaving the NBC fold. Her new job: host of a talk show that will compete directly with Carson on independent stations starting this fall.

The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers will be more than just a pesky new competitor to Carson. It is the first salvo in a major assault on the three networks by Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who last year bought Metromedia's six TV stations and 20th Century-Fox studios. Rivers' program is the first offering from Murdoch's new Fox Broadcasting Co., which he hopes will grow into a full-fledged fourth network. Along with the Rivers show, FBC plans to introduce two nights of prime-time programming next March (one announced show: a half-hour sitcom based on the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills) and, if all goes well, an additional night each succeeding year.

So-called fourth networks have been tried without success before, but Murdoch's effort is the most ambitious yet. With the six Metromedia stations as a foundation (in such large markets as New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago), FBC aims to sign up affiliates reaching more than 80% of the nation's viewers. Programming will include sitcoms, action-adventure shows and movies, little different from current network fare. But Fox executives claim their shows will be less subject to mass-audience pressures. "If we've got a good male action series," says FBC President Jamie Kellner, "we won't add children, dogs and females to make it appeal to other demographics." Though some are skeptical that Murdoch can enlist enough strong independent stations to become a full-scale competitor, industry observers are impressed so far. The signing of Rivers "reveals a couple of things," says Edward * Atorino, a media analyst for Smith Barney. "One, Mr. Murdoch is very serious. Two, he's got some resources to attract talent."

The talent got a bit testy last week. Rivers bragged that her ratings as Tonight's host are higher than Carson's (actually, they are slightly lower when his reruns are factored out) and claimed that she had to fight to get offbeat guests like Boy George on the show. "I always felt I was a stepchild at NBC," she said. "In all the time I was there, I never met (Chairman) Grant Tinker." Carson, through a spokesman, said he was miffed that Rivers had negotiated a deal behind his back. NBC, meanwhile, pointed out that Rivers is joining a lengthy list of late-night hosts, including Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Alan Thicke, who have failed in the battle against Tonight. Said an NBC executive: "The cemetery is full of people who tried to dethrone Carson."