The New York Times - David Letterman Article

David Letterman has been behind Jay Leno for so long -- more than five years -- that he had been all but written off as a factor in the competition for late-night viewers.

But this season Mr. Letterman managed to do something extremely rare in contemporary network television. He built his audience, adding almost half a million viewers to his nightly average.

That achievement was far more significant, at least to the show's producers, than their show's one-week return to first place in the ratings. Mr. Letterman managed that feat two weeks ago, at considerable physical cost. Climbing back to the top took not only a much publicized interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton, but also an equally publicized emergency quintuple bypass for the star himself.

Being forced to the sidelines to convalesce might seem a terrible bit of timing, coming after the momentum of the Clinton show, but Rob Burnett, executive producer of "Late Show with David Letterman," said he did not see it that way.

"I don't see this as some bad break that will prevent us from getting back permanently to first place," he said. "We won because of Hillary and a quintuple bypass. I would trade both for a 10 p.m. show on CBS that gets a 40 share."

It has been Mr. Burnett's contention for some time that Mr. Letterman cannot realistically hope to beat Mr. Leno regularly because of what he calls the disadvantages of being on CBS instead of NBC. Mainly these concern the disparity in the number of viewers leading into the late-night shows. For years NBC has had much stronger network shows from 10 to 11 p.m., especially on Thursday with the mighty "E.R."

NBC's local stations have newscasts that in most cities are much stronger than those on CBS stations. This is especially true in the largest cities and in many others, where CBS's newscasts are often among the weakest. NBC's stations average an 8.8 rating for local news, while CBS's average only a 7.2.

"The local news drop-off on some CBS stations is astonishing," Mr. Burnett said. "The viewers run like it's a test pattern with a really annoying siren. We are so overwhelmingly behind from the moment we go on the air that we can only make up the difference with events."

To underscore his point, he cited New Orleans, which has a local CBS station that dominates its competition in news. "We always beat Jay in New Orleans," Mr. Burnett said. "It's the same show. Dave isn't any funnier in New Orleans."

The handicap did improve somewhat this fall when CBS added stronger 10 p.m. shows, most notably the hit "Judging Amy" on Tuesday. "And we see an up tick in our numbers on Tuesday," Mr. Burnett said.

But Mr. Letterman also made some adjustments in his show that seem to have helped to attract some viewers. Beyond adding viewers, he has nudged up his rating among viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, the group beloved by many advertisers, by about 6 percent. That bucks several trends, including the entire movement of the CBS network, which more than ever is becoming a network built on viewers over 50 years old.

But Mr. Letterman has always defied CBS's skew toward older viewers. According to CBS's research, he does not have fewer fans than he did when he dominated the late-night ratings for two years after he moved to CBS in 1993; they simply watch him less frequently. The research also indicates that there is little cross-over audience between Mr. Letterman and Mr. Leno, which was validated by the results two weeks ago. Even with Mr. Letterman scoring higher ratings when Mrs. Clinton was on his show on Jan. 12, Mr. Leno posted a rating that matched his season average to a tenth of a point.

Mr. Letterman's adjustments include cutting back his monologue, sometimes to just a few jokes; adding a segment in which he sits at his desk and talks directly to the audience, one of his strengths; moving his Top 10 list around to different places; bringing guests out earlier; and improving the show's pacing.

This format helps differentiate the show from Mr. Leno's, which is more than ever a showcase for his greatest skill: the monologue. That strategy works best for Mr. Leno because it plays into another NBC advantage, which is the institutional status of the "Tonight" show.

Jeff Ross, executive producer of NBC's other nightly comedy show, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," noted that when Mr. O'Brien took over that show from Mr. Letterman when he left for CBS -- there was some debate about whether to call the show something else. "That would have been a mistake," Mr. Ross said. "These franchises are really worth something."

"Tonight" has had a multi-generational tradition of the monologue. Johnny Carson perfected it; Mr. Leno has shrewdly maintained the tradition. Viewers watch local news on NBC's stations then watch the same news become the subject of jokes on the "Tonight" show.

Overall Mr. Leno's ratings are down only slightly this season, about 1 percent in total viewers and 4 percent in young adult viewers.

Mr. Burnett argued that Mr. Letterman's ratings were unlikely to suffer even if he was forced to stay off the air several months. But with the star's rapid recovery Mr. Burnett said he doubted he would  be away that long. "Dave was off the air 2.5 months after he left NBC," he said. "His audience was there when he came back." That's one reason it is becoming less likely that Mr. Letterman will have guest hosts fill in during his absence.

"We've never opposed having a guest host," Mr. Burnett said. "It's just a discussion we've never had. I didn't think it was an appropriate topic to discuss with Dave right after his operation."

But if Mr. Letterman continues to progress well, Mr. Burnett said, it's likely that the show will simply package repeats as creatively as possible. This week's round of shows were done in other locations. Mr. Burnett said he might invite guests like Julia Roberts to tape short introductions to repeat episodes that feature them.

And there is always Mr. Letterman's comeback to look forward to. Mr. Burnett predicted that the night he returned the ratings would best Mr. Leno's Soon thereafter, he said, 'We'll be behind Jay again" once again.
"The audience for Letterman grows again"

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The New York Times
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January 26th 2000
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