The tenant of late night

By now you've probably heard all about "Jimmy Kimmel Live," which debuted on ABC following the Super Bowl. You've seen the Emmy-winning host making the rounds on other talk shows. You've seen the unending barrage of advertisements online and on the tube. You've seen everything, that is, but the show itself.

It's old news that WFTV-Channel 9 has, for some unfathomable reason, decided against airing one of the most anticipated new shows of the season. Forget that it is the first live late-night talk show in decades. And try not to imagine the happy cable subscribers in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, or desolate Casper, Wyo., who get to watch Kimmel at the same time as New Yorkers.

There's just no point in dwelling on it further. Instead, let's look ahead at what Channel 9 has graciously offered us in its place.

Following the 11 p.m. Eyewitness News is Nightline at 11:35 p.m. Then it's "Celebrity Justice" at 12:35 a.m., which investigates the legal problems of the rich and famous. Next comes a repeat of the news, before a half-hour of paid programming.

It's easy to see why WFTV general manager Bill Hoffman told the Sentinel he couldn't fit Kimmel into his schedule.

Certainly there's nothing suspicious about the other Cox-owned ABC affiliates in Atlanta and Charlotte also failing to pick up the show. Instead, Hoffman would have us believe that a mysterious Yokel Triangle of missing programming has opened up across the Southeast.

The obvious reason is money, probably a battle between the network and the affiliate over advertising spots, though no one at WFTV is willing to talk about it. Last week, WFTV staffers received an internal e-mail instructing them to direct any complaint calls or e-mails to the new director of marketing. They're anticipating grief.

But who would complain? Central Floridians are getting used to limited television by now. And maybe there is something worth watching during those paid portions.

Scheduled to begin on late Wednesday night, April 2 at 1:10 a.m., is "Havin' a Beer with Mike," a locally-produced comedy show that must be seen to be believed. The show already airs on Time Warner Channel 98 on Fridays at 9:30 p.m. The time slot leaves open the possibility that "Kimmel Live" (which starts at 12:05 a.m.) could eventually join the lineup.

"Havin' a Beer" stars Mike McDaniel, a 6-foot-3-inch bachelor "in the high-end of `his` 30s." His florid cast includes a dwarf, a Richard Simmons impersonator, a former pro footballer and a very muscular transsexual.

I recently followed the crew to a Pine Hills sports pub on very-West Colonial Drive as they taped portions of a sketch for the show two days before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The premise: Mike discovers a spike in the ratings among the "black community" and decides to visit actual black people to thank them.

Earlier in the day they filmed other parts of the bit, including a scene where the misguided dwarf, Carl, purchases watermelons and malt liquor in anticipation of meeting his new fans. Apparently, this was the prelude to a life-lesson for the character.

Next to a bar marked "cash only," with a pink bottle of Alizé on the top shelf, Mike shouted to me his initial assessment of the crowd: "I don't know if they know me," he said between puffs on a giant Corona cigar. "I don't know if they have cable legitimately."

The mostly black clientele seemed to appreciate the generic selections by the DJ and the nonspecific offer to appear on television. A now-reformed Carl was placed atop the DJ booth to yell out his climactic line: "Thanks for being here tonight. It's great to be among y'all, and we love black people!"

With that, the throng roared in approval.

Mike has a dream. He envisions a day when the little television producer can join hands with the network affiliate and be judged not by the quality of his production but by the content of his characters. Or by the amount of his check.

WFTV won't disclose how much money is changing hands to air the show, or even if it is paid programming. But the station will not air its own commercials during "Havin' a Beer," and the deal is being handled by Deborah Provost, a sales account manager, all of which are signs that McDaniel is paying for the time slot.

"When we heard that Mike was available we said 'Forget it, Jimmy,'" says Provost, clearly lying.

Mike may have bought a stepping stone to fame, adding a significant station to a list that already spans the country, but he hasn't solved WFTV's problem. They may have forgotten Jimmy, but the viewers probably won't.

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