|TIME - David Letterman Article
A phalanx of cameras covered the back wall. Gray-suited CBS executives lined the side aisles. Reporters crowded into the
room as if the Iran-Contra hearings were on. But for David Letterman, the press conference at CBS's New York City
headquarters to announce that he was jumping from NBC to CBS was just another late-night monologue. "I never dated Amy Fisher," he dead-panned at the outset. "I fixed her car. I helped her with her homework. I never laid a hand on Amy Fisher." He praised his old network, NBC, for behaving "honorably and as gentlemen," then remarked, "what I will miss most are the back rubs from Irving R. Levine. The man is a master." A reporter asked if any of Letterman's familiar bits, like Stupid Pet Ticks, are still the property of NBC. "They own the rights to my old ice-dancing routine," he replied. When will his new show on CBS begin? "In August," he said. "And we should probably finish up around Labor Day."
Then to CBS president Laurence Tisch, sitting on the podium next to him: "That's a joke, Larry." With l'affaire Letterman, everything was a joke and deadly serious at the same time. Ever since last month, when Letterman made public a lucrative offer to take his late-night talk show to CBS, the drama over whether NBC would be able to keep him was playing out with flip wisecracks in front of the cameras and high-stakes maneuvering behind them. On The Tonight Show, host Jay Leno made jokes about his precarious job status (one night he proposed a new theme song: Stand By Your Man); to reporters, he complained bitterly about the lack of support from NBC executives. On the Letterman show, the star genially deflected gibes from guests about his future; backstage, his advocates lobbied hard to persuade NBC to dump Jay and give The Tonight Show job to Dave.
Only in the floodlit world of network television could a simple career move cause such shock waves. If NBC were to lose
Letterman, pundits warned, its entire late-night house of cards would start to collapse after four dominant decades. If CBS
managed to win him, the network would be a competitive factor in late-night TV for the first time. Casual viewers studied
the subtleties of Letterman's contract and debated NBC's knotty dilemma: Stick with Jay or switch to Dave? NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw couldn't escape the subject even during a vacation following his reporting sojourn to Somalia. After a day of
"birding and fishing and dodging hippos" in a remote area of Botswana, Brokaw said, a guide noticed his Late Night cap and
asked, "Do you think that Letterman is going to CBS?" Now, from Botswana to Burbank, everybody knows. After a flurry of last-minute negotiations, Letterman announced he will leave NBC when his contract expires in late June and resurface
on CBS -- an hour earlier, at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time -- two months later.
NBC, after a siege of executive indecision (and possibly a last-minute change of heart), decided to stick with Leno, the man it installed as host of The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson's retirement last May. The result will be a face-to-face battle between Leno and Letterman in the latest, liveliest chapter of the late-night wars.
Letterman's move brings to a close an extraordinary era in TV history. Since debuting as host of Late Night with David
Letterman in February 1982, the gap-toothed comic has rewritten the rule book for the TV talk show, giving the form a hip,
self-satirizing edge, perfectly pitched to the baby-boom generation. Yet his success was largely made possible by his late, relatively low-profile time period, following Carson's Tonight Show.
Now Letterman will try to bring his act to an arena where the competition is keener, the stakes are higher and the pressure to attract a mass audience is greater. The big question: Can Dave still be Dave an hour earlier?
Both Letterman and his new CBS bosses are walking a delicate line between assuring continuity and promising a show with broader appeal. Most of the familiar elements of Letterman's current show -- including bandleader Paul Shaffer, executive producer Robert "Morty" Morton and signature bits like the nightly Top Ten List -- will make the move to CBS with him.
In an interview with Time, however, Letterman seemed to indicate a mellowing approach. "Ideas come to me right and left every day, and I think to myself, 'Gee, 10 years ago, I'd have taken a shot at this.' Now the combination of my feeling these things and also (being on at) 11:30 -- maybe people don't want you dropping water balloons off the building at 11:30. If you buy the theory that the show does need broadening -- and I'm not suggesting that we know that yet; we'll find out -- then we want it to be broadened. I want it to be my show, and I want it to be as appealing to as many people as possible. I think this is just a great opportunity for us to apply 11 years of experience to try to build the best version of this show we can."
Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group and leader of the network's campaign to snag Letterman, acknowledged a need to attract more women viewers, many of whom are turned off by Letterman's frat-house antics. But he
insisted there will be no effort to change the qualities that made Letterman a hit at NBC. "We don't want a defanged Letterman or a blander Letterman," he said. "We haven't put pressure on him. We want to let him adapt as he sees fit."
One adaptation under consideration is a switch of locale. Much of Late Night's gritty distinctiveness has come from his New York City base. Yet there is talk of moving the show to Los Angeles, largely to take advantage of the bigger pool of celebrity guests there. "For my own personal comfort, I'd like to stay in New York," said Letterman. "I'm happy here; I like the weather; I like where I live; I like my milkman. But the ultimate consideration is, Are we going to be able to do the best, most competitive version of this show in New York or Los Angeles? It's not going to be an easy decision."
Easier, though, than the one NBC had to make when Letterman presented his whopping offer from CBS last month. The rival network had met Letterman's chief demand, an 11:30 time slot, and the monetary inducement was substantial: a salary between $14 million and $18 million a year (depending on various incentives), more than double his current pay at NBC.
Letterman was also promised ownership of his show and a chance to produce a second program following it at 12:30. By a previous agreement with Letterman's representatives, headed by Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz, NBC had one month to try to match CBS's offer. Though neither Letterman nor NBC executives would divulge details of the negotiations, insiders say NBC made several offers, including a weekly prime-time slot. But Letterman rejected them. "If you were going to do a half-hour of prime-time television," he explained, "you would have to do it as well as Jerry Seinfeld does it. I couldn't do it that well, so why waste my time?"
The prospect of a different kind of prime-time showcase -- a variety show, say -- also held little appeal. "I would not be
interested enough in that format to do what it took to make it work," he said.
It became clear to NBC that its only chance of keeping Letterman was to dump Leno as Tonight host and give Letterman the job -- something NBC executives had publicly ruled out. What's more, a "poison pill" in Letterman's CBS contract made the 11:30 time period a virtual sine qua non of any deal. The CBS contract promised Letterman a $50 million penalty payment
if his show was not aired at 11:30. Since NBC, to keep Letterman, was required to match CBS's monetary deal, it would
have had to include the same penalty payment -- effectively forcing the network to air Letterman at 11:30.
At this point the story takes an Amy Fisher turn: the facts are in drastic dispute. According to some reports, NBC executives caved in at the last minute and proposed to give Letterman The Tonight Show spot -- though for less money than CBS offered and not starting until June 1994. The reason for the delay, according to the reports, was that once the deal was made known, Leno would almost certainly quit, thus freeing NBC from the obligation of paying him $10 million for breaking his contract.
NBC executives heatedly denied the report, insisting that they never offered Letterman the Tonight job. "The goal was always the same," said entertainment president Warren Littlefield: "Is there a way to keep both of these talented people on NBC? And ultimately, without giving away 11:30, there was no way." But even the hint of a last-minute abandonment of Leno was yet another public relations blow to a network that, by this point, may wish it had never heard of The Tonight Show.
The other half of NBC's problem is finding a successor to Letterman. After announcing several weeks ago that Dana Carvey was their choice for the job, NBC officials were forced to admit that the Saturday Night Live star is still undecided about whether he wants to do the show. (Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels has been named the program's producer.)
Other names, from Dennis Miller to Billy Crystal, have been floated as possible Letterman successors, though one obvious
candidate -- Bob Costas, host of the sprightly talk show Later with Bob Costas, which follows Letterman -- has been
surprisingly absent from the speculation. Insiders say Costas, who lives in St. Louis, Missouri, does not want to make the weekday commitment in New York.
NBC's decision to stick with Leno -- at least given the money Letterman was demanding -- drew mostly favorable reaction
from industry watchers. Leno's ratings, despite a dip in the early fall, have been on the rise in recent weeks, and are only
marginally lower than Carson's were a year earlier. (Leno also costs NBC a relatively measly $3 million a year.) "Leno is
doing well enough that it would have been a real mistake for NBC to cut him loose," says Betsy Frank, a senior Vice-president at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising. Nor are CBS's prospects with Letterman at 11:30 all that certain. He will undoubtedly benefit from an initial publicity surge, but his irreverent, often abrasive style may not sit well with a mainstream audience used to the easy-listening Tonight style.
He will, moreover, be at a competitive disadvantage because a number of CBS stations currently delay the network's late-night offerings in favor of syndicated fare like M*A*S*H reruns and The Arsenio Hall Show. It remains to be seen how quickly they will displace such profitable shows for Letterman.
The biggest winner on the new late-night battlefield may well be ABC's Nightline, which will retain the serious-news audience while the talk-show crowd splinters further. The most likely loser is Arsenio Hall, whose ratings have been slipping of late and whose young audience presumably overlaps Letterman's.
Another loser may be Chevy Chase, who is set to host an 11 p.m. talk show for the Fox network starting next fall; it is hard to see where his audience will come from. Can some measure of peace be restored after the most overextended over-hyped talent battle in recent memory? The principals are doing their best to calm the waters.
A relieved Leno, roaring into a Los Angeles press conference on his Harley motorcycle, denied that he was bitter at either NBC or Letterman and said he was eager to do battle with Dave: "I'm looking forward to the competition. That's what will make the show better." Letterman denied there was any rancor between him and Leno, who have been friendly for years. "We have the
same relationship we've always had," he said.
Yet Letterman's warmest words were reserved for the man whose departure may have made his job switch inevitable.
Letterman said he had had a phone conversation with Carson a few days earlier. "I don't know of a person in comedy or
television who didn't grow up with Johnny Carson as a role model," he said. "The man has been encouraging and helpful to
me in ways that he doesn't know I know about." And what advice did Johnny give? "He said, 'Stop calling me.'"
DAVE'S TOP TEN CONTRIBUTIONS TO AMERICAN CULTURE
1. THE TOP TEN LIST Introduced in 1985, Letterman's nightly dash of monologue helper was the show's most breezily topical, consistently funny and, yes, frequently imitated (but ours goes in the right order) feature.
2. SHOW-BIZ IRONY Late Night's great innovation: while Johnny, Oprah and all the others were doing a talk show, Dave
set about satirizing one. With lots of Vegas kibitzing from Paul Shaffer.
3. LARRY "BUD" MELMAN Letterman's favorite fall guy HAS seen his 15 minutes of fame stretch for more than a decade. AND he still doesn't have a clue.
4. STUPID PET TRICKS Late Night's signature bit was also its most innocently likable, not least because Dave -- a cynic who melted in the presence of big shaggy dogs -- seemed to love it.
5. STUPID LETTERMAN TRICKS Remember elevator races, the Monkey-Cam, Letterman's Velcro suit? Outlandish physical bits were not the show's funniest moments, only its most often quoted.
6. CELEBRITY TRASHING Mickey Rooney, Shirley MacLaine, Crispin Glover and Cher were just a few of the Hollywood egos who had onstage run-ins with TV's least fawning host.
7. COMPANY BASHING With those endless GE jokes, Letterman acted out every working stiff's fantasy: making fun of the
boss. The difference is that this working stiff got away with it -- big time.
8. CHRIS ELLIOTT The revenge of the nerd: in the show's early years, this writer turned comic (the Guy Under the Seats,
a bogus Brando) was Letterman's most inspired discovery.
9. STREET THEATER Pedestrians along Sixth Avenue can now ignore those ringing pay phones and Meg, across the way at
Simon & Schuster, can get back to working for a living.
10. LENO'S CAREER BOOST Long before taking over The Tonight Show, he was Letterman's funniest regular guest, the man with the beefs. Life was simpler then, wasn't it, Jay?
|"Dave Makes The Deal ... Jay Stays Put"
"A Show-Biz Cliffhanger Ends as Letterman Jumps to CBS to do Battle With Leno for the Late-Night Ratings Crown"
by RICHARD ZOGLIN
|Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>|
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|January 25th 1993|
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