Chicago Tribune - David Letterman Article

It makes sense that the late-night talk-show wars, just passing their 10-year anniversary, would be drenched in ironies.

David Letterman, who seems to be somewhat more comfortably ensconced at CBS these days, practically made ironic detachment a way of life for a generation of fans.

And Jay Leno, now pandering nightly from his perch at NBC's venerable "Tonight Show," used to have a knack for it himself. These days he, literally and figuratively, high-fives his audience nightly.

But it works. Leno indisputably kicks Letterman's behind in the national ratings, a weekly drubbing that is itself ironic. Letterman gave Leno his most consistent early national exposure and then lost to him the right to occupy the "Tonight Show" chair after Johnny Carson.

Yes, as you may have heard, Dave has gained slightly this year amid CBS' ratings growth and the announcement that Letterman, at 56, had a baby, part of a recent series of image-softening events for the sometimes prickly host. But Jay, hitching his star recently and controversially to the Arnold Schwarzenegger gubernatorial candidacy, has gained a little more, enough so that NBC President Jeff Zucker's November proclamation that "there is no more late-night war" could be counted as more than mere bluster, although something less than the complete truth.

But here's where the most cutting irony comes. The broad popular vote, week in and week out since 1995, swings Leno's way. Yet Letterman is the one who gets all the credit for greatness from fellow comics, critics and peers, his "Late Show" winning, for example, best-show-in-its-class Emmys six times overall and five of the last six years to "Tonight's" one win, in 1995.

Letterman, as affirmed by the response to his memorable, first post-Sept. 11 show, is the one the culture treats as if he has something to say.

Letterman's reported salary is nearly double Leno's, at $31 million to $16 million, and Letterman even gloated recently, recounting something a soldier had asked him during a USO visit to Baghdad, that he's in much better physical shape than Leno, part of his new willingness to acknowledge, even fuel, the rivalry on air.

Anniversary special

And Letterman's last prime-time special, a five-year anniversary celebration five years ago, easily outpaced Leno's lone prime-time foray during his tenure, a 2002 10-year special, especially in the key 18-to-49-year-old battle that Leno's regular show so consistently dominates.

It's almost as if only one of the shows is named correctly. At NBC, it is "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," but CBS would be more accurate to reverse the billing in their effort, renaming it "David Letterman with the Late Show."

You can parse the numbers a lot of ways, and executives at CBS and NBC do just that to bolster their respective cases. But what seems most true -- and most surprising, given the ongoing hyping of the Jay vs. Dave battle -- is that both shows have proven remarkably resilient and that few regular viewers are in play anymore.

"There is very little competition between `The Late Show' and `The Tonight Show,'" said David Poltrack, the executive who heads CBS' audience research. "There's very little crossover. People are either `Late Show' viewers or `Tonight Show' viewers."

"They have made their selections," agreed Tom Bierbaum, ratings watcher for NBC Entertainment publicity, "and there isn't any reason to expect a lot of movement until major pieces change on the late-night schedules."

Among the possibilities would be: ABC moving a comedy show into the 10:35 p.m. slot, throwing over "Nightline" to chase a younger audience, as it tried to do when it courted Letterman in early 2002; Jon Stewart, currently hot on cable, jumping to a network; or Leno or Letterman retiring (although the contract of Letterman, seemingly the most likely to do so, reportedly obligates him for at least two more years).

But because none of that appears imminent, we are left with Jay and Dave, two men forever linked.

Landscape changed

Since Leno took over for Carson in 1992 and Letterman began the next year at CBS after holding the post-Johnny post at NBC, much has changed in the late-night and, indeed, television landscape.

ABC has added two late-night comedy shows, replacing Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" with the current "Jimmy Kimmel Live." Conan O'Brien, Letterman's "Late Night" replacement at NBC, has gained popularity and cultural currency. And CBS has added a Conan challenger, "The Late Late Show," fronted by founding "Daily Show" host Craig Kilborn.

Meanwhile, cable's "Daily Show," now with Stewart in the host chair and reimagined as a forum for trenchant political commentary and media satire, is getting all the buzz.

Stewart was just on the cover of Newsweek, and the "Daily Show" last year took home its first best comedy or variety show Emmy.

But against all of this competition, plus an aggressive slate of sitcom repeats and other cable comedy fragmenting the audience, the Letterman and Leno audiences have remained consistent, after the initial burst of interest that greeted Letterman's move to CBS wore off.

"Letterman had a big start and cooled, but over the last five or six years his numbers versus a few years ago have been not that bad and Leno's even versus 10 years ago are pretty decent," said Bierbaum.

As the charts on page 5 demonstrate, Leno has consistently drawn between 4 and 5 percent of American households, Letterman about 3 percent.

It's that gap, and surely some frustration with all the bashing Leno takes from TV critics, that led Zucker to issue his November broadside, in a New York Times story.

"There are two factors here," Zucker told the paper. "`The Tonight Show' has gotten stronger because Jay and his producer, Debbie Vickers, have brought freshness to the comedy; and I think the Letterman show appears more tired."

Many would disagree with that, but Zucker went even further: "I think it's hard for the national media to accept the fact that Jay is so dominant.

The national media has always been more drawn to the dark, brooding cynicism of Dave, rather than the populist wit of Jay."

To at least some members of the national media, that's a deeply flawed interpretation. A person doesn't have to work hard to argue that Leno is by far the more cynical, having traded his once-acerbic wit, for, indeed, "populist" and, not insignificantly, celebrity-friendly softness.

Even as it aims to win viewers, the show, too, plays as more cynical, almost numbingly, desperately overloaded with comic bits and set decoration and produced pieces.

Letterman, meanwhile, admittedly allows more of a darker side to show, but that also plays as more honest, more human. It gives him a grounding so that when he comes back from Sept. 11, or heart surgery, or the birth of a baby, with all of the irony stripped away and only his honest reactions, there is genuine power to his words.

Unusual whims

But the show is, no doubt, more willing to follow the host's and his writers' sometimes unusual whims. A longstanding regular segment made much ado over whether common items would float or not; the bit lost its comic buoyancy long before it stopped airing.

And the use of showgirls and glamorous models at the drop of a hat may have once been a wry nod to old-school showbiz, but now it just seems pointless, even leaving Letterman open to charges of lechery despite Leno's being the much more sexually suggestive, and schoolboy snickering, program.

But what seems clear in recent months is that Letterman, after years of trying too hard himself to regain his early ratings superiority, has made a kind of peace with second place. He's again playing the underdog role that served him so well during the initial run of "Late Night" on NBC and seemingly enjoying it.

Certainly in the ways that matter most to advertisers, the numbers backing up Zucker's crowing are impressive. For the fourth quarter of 2003, Leno had his highest victory margin over Letterman in total viewers in four years, 6.1 million to 4.3 million (with "Nightline" at 4.0 million).

NBC press releases contain such phrases as these: "Jay Dominates the Fourth Quarter, Up Over Last Year in 18-49, While Dave and the Others Are Down ... Jay Wins His 33rd Quarter in a Row..."

CBS, meanwhile, is left to tout, typically, small victories: "CBS' Late Night Duo Enjoy Monday Ratings Glory" came after a November Monday in which Letterman beat Leno and Kilborn beat an O'Brien repeat.

But there may have been more than either gloating or frustration behind Zucker's comment.

The birth of the boy who would be named Harry Letterman, after the host's father, was not far off, and Zucker may have feared the humanizing influence this would have.

Prime-time strength

He also, no doubt, noticed CBS' increasing strength in prime-time and NBC's diminished power, a trend that seems likely to continue. Letterman's backers have been saying for years that much of the popularity gap between the two shows has been due to the relatively small lead-in audience Letterman gets, both from prime-time and from CBS stations' comparatively weak late news performance, especially in the biggest cities.

"We've realized the ratings are very much out of our hands," said Rob Burnett, executive producer of "The Late Show" and, again ironically, also the executive producer, along with Letterman's company, of the long-running series "Ed" on NBC. "It's always the function of lead-ins."

"I do think there is a late-night war," said CBS' Poltrack. "With the right competitive situation, either show can beat the other one."

Poltrack pointed to the November sweeps month. There were 71 markets, of 210 in the country, in which CBS affiliates' late news leading into the late-night shows beat NBC affiliates' late news. "The Late Show" won in 58 of those markets and tied in two. It won in only six where the NBC news lead-in was more popular.

"When Letterman does not have a lead-in disadvantage, the show more likely wins," Poltrack said.

The trend is positive for CBS. In the May sweeps, Letterman won in only 45 markets. And the lead-in Leno is getting was down from last November to this, from a 9.5 rating to a 9.1, while Letterman's was up to a 7.9 from a 7.4.

And "Tonight," Nielsen figures show, is much more front-loaded, with its biggest lead over Letterman coming during Leno's extended monologue, then dropping. (The gap is 42 percent during the first quarter-hour, then 30 percent in the next half hour, despite "Tonight" landing a higher proportion of truly big-name guests.)

But, bottom line, the gap remains huge, and not even Poltrack will argue that "Tonight" isn't having a great year, actually increasing its lead this TV season.

To the Jay Leno partisans, whoever they may be, all of this surely reads as hairsplitting. Leno wins, hands down.

Letterman's fans can fall back on only the satisfaction they take in the show and the critical respect it garners. Their guy may be losing whatever war still exists, but his winning the more prominent place in television history seems assured.
"Battle of wits"

"After a decade, Leno wins the ratings war, but Letterman gets the last laugh"

Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>
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January 11th 2004
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