|TIME - David Letterman Article
"What are your hours?" Steve Martin wanted to know. Appearing as a guest on Late Night with David Letterman last week, Martin surveyed the studio with approving nods, probed the host for details about his employment perks and asked to try out his chair. "The only reason I'm doing this," he commented, "is I happen to be friendly with NBC."
And so the barrage of "Is Letterman leaving?" jokes begins. The late-night host, whose unhappiness with NBC has been a running gag for years, now has a whole new arena for backstage barbs; he has embraced a rich offer from rival network CBS. No doubt there will be guests offering career advice, wisecracks about contract negotiations, maybe even "The Top Ten Things Dave Wants to Ask Dan Rather." Networks have battled over high-priced stars before, but never so publicly for such an extended period. A guide to the principal players and the action so far:
*DAVID LETTERMAN, after a decade as host of the funniest hour on TV, begins to feel restless in his late-night
(12:35 a.m. EST) time slot. But when the job he covets -- host of The Tonight Show -- becomes available, it goes to Jay Leno. With his NBC contract expiring next spring, Letterman hires a new agent, Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz, and starts entertaining offers. Everyone from the Fox Network (which wants to team Letterman in a late-night block with Chevy Chase) to major syndicators like Viacom (which offers Letterman additional exposure on its cable networks MTV and VH-1) weighs in with lucrative bids.
*CBS, long a weak also-ran in late night, sees a chance to become a contender in the increasingly competitive time period.
After an eight-month courtship (which began when broadcast group president Howard Stringer approached Letterman at an
awards ceremony in April), the network fashions a deal that would pay Letterman more than $14 million a year to move his
show, more or less intact, to CBS at 11:30. Letterman would get other benefits as well, including ownership of his program
and a chance to produce a companion show at 12:30. Letterman tells his current employer that he would like to accept CBS's
*NBC has a headache. According to a deal struck with Letterman in the fall, the network has one month to match or better CBS's offer. But to do so, it would most likely have to offer him The Tonight Show job, something NBC executives have ruled out. The network's dilemma: if it doesn't replace Leno with Letterman, it must be prepared to watch Leno compete
No one ever said replacing a TV legend would be easy, but NBC's problems following Johnny Carson's retirement from
Tonight last May have been worse than anyone could have predicted. Picking Leno as Carson's successor seemed a logical
move at the time; Leno, after all, had drawn good ratings as Carson's permanent guest host. But Letterman, once regarded as
Carson's heir apparent, was publicly grumpy at being passed over. And Leno, a well-liked and hardworking comic, has
suffered a shocking run of bad publicity, much of it stemming from the hardball booking tactics employed by his departed
executive producer Helen Kushnick.
Now comes the second-guessing. "NBC seems to have made the wrong call (for The Tonight Show)," says Grant Tinker,
former NBC chairman. "I think David should have been the one." Another top TV executive contends that it was a "monumental blunder" for NBC to pick Leno over Letterman: "They put themselves in the position of angering a real marketable asset, of which they have precious few." A member of the Letterman camp argues that dumping Leno is the only way for NBC to salvage its 30-year dominance in late night. "Leno is destined for failure," he says. "NBC has a chance to right a wrong."
Though there have been reports that NBC president Robert Wright favors Letterman for the Tonight job, NBC program
executives insist they are happy with Leno and contemplate no change. Leno's ratings, they point out, are on the rise, from
a low of 4.1 in August to 4.6 for the important November sweeps. That is still substantially behind Carson's 5.4 score
of a year earlier, but it does include a slightly higher proportion of the young viewers most sought by advertisers. Opinion on Madison Avenue is mixed: Some call Leno's performance disappointing; others are upbeat. "Leno is holding up quite well with all the competition that has been thrown against him," says Richard J. Kostyra, executive vice-president at ad agency J. Walter Thompson.
Whatever Leno's performance, there is no assurance that Letterman, whose hip, edgy irreverence seems to alienate as
many viewers as it attracts, could do any better. "Dave is a unique personality with a very defined audience makeup," says
an NBC executive. "We don't know that that will work at 11:30." Money is also an argument in favor of the status quo:
Leno makes just $3 million a year. (Letterman currently pulls in $6 million.) NBC, moreover, has lined up an attractive
candidate to replace Letterman: Dana Carvey of Saturday Night Live.
Not that NBC is ready to surrender Letterman just yet. The network could offer him other inducements in lieu of The Tonight spot, such as a series of prime-time specials. If NBC can match CBS's offer, Letterman is obliged by his contract to remain. NBC executives will argue that CBS's 11:30 time period is partly illusory, since roughly a third of CBS's affiliates delay the network's late-night programming (currently a rotating series of crime shows) in favor of syndicated fare like Love Connection or M*A*S*H reruns. Still, a Letterman-vs.-Leno matchup would be one of the most intriguing in TV history.
Though they are nearly the same age (Letterman is 45, Leno 42) and have similar roots in stand-up comedy, the two seem to represent different show-business generations. Letterman, with his subversive antics and ironic attitude, does not so much act as host for a talk show as satirize talk shows. He is following a trail blazed by Carson, who introduced a self-parodying subtext.
Carson's famous "savers" -- ad-libs to salvage jokes that bombed -- along with his conspiratorial asides to the audience
during corny bits like Aunt Blabby and Carnac, were a way of making the comedian himself the butt of the joke. Leno, however, is a throwback to a pre-Carson era. He barrels through his joke-packed monologue with scarcely a sidelong glance, and cackles cheerfully at every lame anecdote that guests toss out. He rarely apologizes for bad material or steps out from behind the performer's mask.
He still believes, almost quaintly, in the possibility of doing a comedic talk show without irony. At a time when everyone from Dennis Miller to Garry Shandling has ripped open the genre for ridicule, Leno's mission seems almost heroic.
And maybe doomed. After more than six months as Tonight's host, Leno is wearing badly. His monologues, though more incisive than Carson's, have grown wearying in their rat-a-tat impersonality. His chipper demeanor during interviews is too forced, and he lacks warmth. Letterman, even in his worst moments of cranky boredom ("It's hot in here!"), makes more human contact. No telling whether Letterman can make it as a mainstream attraction and topple his rival. But if he does, the Tonight-style talk show just may bite the dust along with Leno.
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|December 21st 1992|
|T Bone's Late Show with David Letterman Webpage Contact Me|
|"The wooing of David Letterman"
"Rival CBS makes the top bid for the NBC star, who was passed over for the job of Tonight Show host. Now his network must
persuade him to stay or see him become a competitor"
By RICHARD ZOGLIN