TV Guide - David Letterman Article

Murder at midnight, Part I:

"The Case of the Ticked-off Host' starring David Letterman, featuring Dana Carvey as himself (with Dave's top reasons for leaving NBC and stupid net tricks)"


It was the week that NBC was supposed to put the rumors to rest. As the nation's TV writers gathered in Los Angeles for the fall collection of programming fashions, the buzz about mayhem in the late-night hours was as noisy as crickets in the evening. It had been crackling that way all summer, ever since Johnny Carson blinked back a tear at Bette Midler and disappeared.

First there was the business of Carson and Leno and their supposed feud. Proof: Carson hadn't mentioned Leno during his farewell weeks, and Leno hadn't uttered Carson's name since taking over. Not true, said NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, taking the podium. Littlefield announced that Johnny had just signed an exclusive deal with NBC -- to do pretty much anything he wanted to do, anytime, for pretty much any amount he'd care to charge. Nope, echoed Leno, he hadn't snubbed Carson; he just didn't want to get sloppy about things. Why, just last week, he said, he and Johnny had a heckuva nice talk.

So far so good. Then another denizen of the midnight hours, Dana Carvey, of Saturday Night Live and "Wayne's World,"
came on and put the critics away with a witty impersonation.

After his shtick, he withdrew, leaving the stage to Littlefield, who went on to describe NBC's fall prospects. When he got to I Witness Video, a series featuring home videos of disasters and murders, the critics got mean. Littlefield began to feel the heat. Whoa! Tough crowd.

Out of the wings bounded Dana Carvey. With a couple of quips, he rescued Littlefield as effortlessly as he knocks off those parodies of Church Ladies and George Bush. And, oh, of course, Johnny Carson. It was fitting, for it might not be the last time Carvey comes to NBC's rescue.

More buzz: David Letterman was truly steamed. He'd been unofficially promised Carson's job. His show was owned by Carson's company. "Dave was a big contender," confirms Merrill Markoe, Letterman's chief collaborator in the early
days of Late Night. "It seemed to him that the logical progression for his career would be to get the earlier time slot."

Letterman had been toiling on the late-night shift for 10 years. So now, damn right he was talking to other people. Damn right he had hired Hollywood powerhouse agent Mike Ovitz to get him out early from his NBC contact, which ends next April. Damn right.

What about Letterman, the critics asked Littlefield. "A very tough guy to read," he conceded. "David is a complex man and it's hard to know what he's thinking." NBC wanted Letterman to continue, he said, but "we had to deal with change (in late-night) recently...if we have to do it again, we'll be prepared." Hmmmm. Any link to the other NBC announcement that week -- that Carvey had been signed to a new deal, well before his contract for Saturday Night Live expired! Nooooo, said Littlefield. "I don't know," said Carvey. "Perhaps." And so the stage is set. Not only is there turmoil elsewhere in the late-night scene (see "Murder at Midnight," part II) but the Dave-and-Dana scenario that is about to unfold may be more fun to follow than the summer Olympics.

Few will talk for the record; they say it's all too fluid. But here's what the smart money says is going on. First, the background: The way this all began was not with Johnny Carson coolly announcing to NBC that he would retire. He was nudged. Carson was in his 29th year; he had just signed on for his 30th. But his iron grip on the affiliate stations -- and on younger viewers -- was beginning to slip. He was coming in three days a week, taking endless vacations, and Arsenio Hall was charging up the path at him. Time to let Carson know that things were getting serious. But Carson beat NBC to the punch and announced he would retire before the end of his 30th. Sigh of relief. It was true. Leno's ratings as a sub were about on a par with Carson's; plus, he brought in younger viewers. And he worked a lot harder at schmoozing the network brass than either Letterman or Carson.

As for Letterman, they were pretty well convinced he'd be consoled by a clause in his contract paying him a lot of money if he wasn't given Carson's job (estimates place the figure at up to $1 million). But the money, say Dave's friends, meant less than the chance to get out of the 12:30 slot, at last, and face the growing competition head-to-head. "At his age," says one
source, "this could be his last chance to do it." Letterman, 45, swallowed hard and tried to smile on camera. Behind the
smile, Dave was, as he blurted out, negotiating his "ass off," looking for another route to that 11:30 time slot. "Can you imagine Letterman going head-to-head with Leno?" asks an ad exec. "Now, that would be bloody!"

Letterman seethed, Carson retired, and Leno took over. Then, Helen Kushnick, Leno's manager/producer, generously
offered to extend Leno's hour to 90 minutes, which just happened to cut into Letterman's first half hour. Thanks, Helen. Letterman, never a beacon of security in ordinary times, began to glitter dangerously. "It doesn't have to be one thing," says a Late Night insider, "but a series of things -- and suddenly you get the idea you're not getting respect."

At this point, the drama ushered in its latest players, Dana Carvey and his hot-shot manager, Brad Grey. With his client flush from the $120-million success of "Wayne's World," Grey negotiated a deal with NBC that was cloaked in secrecy -- but it's safe to assume it was not the run-of-the-mill extension of an SNL player.

Rumors that Letterman's field marshal, Ovitz, talked not only with CBS but syndicators like Paramount and King World arose, then were batted down like summer bugs. ABC remained the best possibility, though fraught with potential conflicts: if Letterman jumps to ABC, does his new show follow Nightline, or bump it back an hour! That would push an equally steamed
Ted Koppel over the edge, since he's already told ABC affiliates that any more tampering with Nightline's time period may mean the end of the show.

A monkey wrench in all of this is a clause said to be in the contract between Letterman and NBC, which could keep Letterman from going to a competitor until spring '94. But it's a clause NBC will drop -- if Carvey is in place to take over Late Night.

Meanwhile, it can get pretty weird out on summer nights. Carvey recently taped an episode of HBO's new talk-show spoof,
The Larry Sanders Show Starring Garry Shandling. (Shandling once passed up sharing Leno's guest-host chores on the Tonight Show.) In the show, Carvey, playing himself, agrees to guest-host for Sanders. But the script has Carvey call Sanders to say he's been offered his own talk show -- opposite Sanders'.

Crickets chirp in the dark and the plot thickens.

Murder at Midnight, Part II

"On the trail of the late-night suspects' starring Jay Leno, Whoopi Goldberg, Arsenio Hall, Chevy Chase -- and first victim Dennis Miller"


Jay Leno is surrounded. A noisy gaggle of reporters, thrusting recorders alarmingly close to his famous elongated jaw, crushing from every side. He has just finished taping his show, and his makeup, despite the room's air-conditioning, is dripping off his face. One reporter considerately hands him a cocktail napkin while the rest continue their barrage of questions: Is he hurt by bad reviews? Is his show playing hardball to get guests? Is he feeling the pressure? "No," says Leno, his blue eyes twinkling, "I don't feel any pressure."

But the pressure is on. In the increasingly bloody battle for the title of New Late-Night King, one knight has already been knocked off his charger: Dennis Miller, whose show has been canceled after only seven months.

But this is no simple warfare to be decided in the opening rounds. The battlefield itself is changing -- and so are the rules. Old warriors like David Letterman are considering changing horses. New warriors -- like Whoopi Goldberg, Chevy Chase, and Dana Carvey -- are threatening to storm the arena from every side. So even if Leno appears to be the one still seated after the opening thrusts and parries, the dust kicked up by the battle for late-night supremacy won't begin to settle for a year or more.

Here's how the television warriors are doing so far: Since it's debut on May 25, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno is in first place with a Nielsen rating of 5.3 -- representing roughly 4.9 million viewers. To no one's surprise, Leno's spectacular ratings (6.6) the first few weeks -- owing to the considerable curiosity factor of seeing a revamped Tonight -- have settled down.

In solid second place is not Arsenio Hall, but ABC's surprisingly resilient Nightline, with a 4.3. Tying for third place are Arsenio and CBS's action/adventure series Crimetime after Primetime, with 3.3. Letterman, in the latest time slot,
comes in fourth, with 2.7. But those numbers may change dramatically when put to the following tests:

September 1992: Whoopi Goldberg, one of Hollywood's hottest properties, begins her new late-night talk show on a
patchwork of network-affiliated and independent stations across the country. Billed as an intimate half-hour interview with a
single guest, Goldberg will forgo the usual late-night trappings of a monologue, desk, couch, and signature band. Goldberg says she isn't worried about how the show's three-day-a-week, three-shows-a-day taping schedule might impact her sizzling movie and television career. "People are saying, 'Why are you doing this?'" says Goldberg. She pauses, the surprise in her voice easily matching its enthusiasm. "Because I can. It's something I've always wanted to do."

"Whoopi will definitely steal audience," says a major industry publicist who regularly books celebrity clients on the late-night shows. "She's a powerhouse and she's offering a really attractive alternative -- 22 minutes of conversation with a big-name star."

The big names already lined up include Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Michael Douglas, Billy Crystal and Barbara Walters. But Goldberg says she is uninterested in waging media warfare. "The number-one spot I'm sure is very nice," she says, "but that's not my goal." The non-competitor adds, "People can have a choice as to whether they want to just be mindlessly entertained or they want a little information or they want a lot of information."

April 1993: David Letterman's contract expires at NBC -- and Dana Carvey is waiting in the wings, perhaps as a replacement (see Murder at Midnight, Part I). If Letterman jumps to ABC, does his new show follow ABC News' multiple-award-winning Nightline or bump it back an hour?

If Nightline is bumped, anchorman Ted Koppel may balk and the future of that show may be up for grabs.

September 1993: Chevy Chase -- who was once considered a front-runner to take over Tonight -- kicks off his hour-long
talk show for Fox Television. While the format is as-yet undecided, there's speculation that it may lean as heavily on skits and comedy as on pure talk. "Basically," quipped Chase, "it will be an exact copy of David Letterman without the gap between his teeth."

But Fox takes a far more serious view: It intends to clear all its affiliates -- including the ones now carrying The Arsenio Hall Show -- to make room for Chevy in the 11:30 p.m. time slot. "The question with Chevy," says Ken Ehrlich, a TV producer who helped launch the Dennis Miller Show, "is whether he can sit there and talk to people." And whether he can listen.

The same applies to Leno and Hall. "The key to Johnny Carson's success," says Ehrlich, "was that you felt that he was
asking the questions you wanted to ask. You felt comfortable with him. I don't think you feel as much that way with any of
the others."

Some media watchers are also disturbed by the increasing lack of differentiation between Tonight, Late Night and Arsenio. If they look pretty much the same and appeal to the same target audience, they wonder, why should a viewer be loyal to any of them? "They shouldn't, and that's why they're coming to us," says Rod Perth, CBS's VP of late-night programming. The network's rotating dramas, Crimetime After Primetime, have indeed registered their best ratings ever since Leno took over
Tonight.

Perth is happy to tick off the shortcomings of some of his current and future competitors. "Whoopi, because she's bulk-taping her shows, won't be able to be topical. Chevy Chase? His interviewing skills are nil. And Arsenio is down to stunt casting. He can only get big numbers when he has an Eddie Murphy."

But casting, "stunt" or otherwise, is apparently the name of the game. "We did audience research when we were putting the Miller show together," says Ehrlich, "and -- with the exception of Letterman -- the guests are what really separate the shows." Which may explain why the battle of the bookings is now being waged in earnest -- and may have been the primary reason
that the Miller show could never gain a toe-hold. Carol Propp, a former talent booker on the Miller show, describes the
strategy. "Initially, both shows (Leno's and Arsenio's) gave celebrities the impression that if they did our show, they wouldn't be able to do their show for a long time. They said things like 'The A-man wouldn't like it if you did that show.' It scared enough people that it became very difficult." Propp also claims that the Leno show was offering "multiple bookings" on tonight in exchange for not doing Miller.

Hall declines to comment on his booking strategies. And Leno says, "I think you have a situation where a lot of guests
don't want to do a particular show and use whatever excuse they can."

But in the ever-changing landscape of late-night TV, even Leno has no intention of giving up his original "day" job. "I still go out and do one-nighters on Saturday or Sunday. I was always a pretty successful stand-up comedian."

Spoken like a true knight, lance sharpened, ready for battle.
C
"Why are these guys smiling? Try this out: Letterman bolts NBC to take on Leno, while Carvey takes over Late Night"

By BARRY GOLSON, MIKE FLEMING and DEBORAH STARR SEIBEL
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August 1st 1992
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