David Letterman Ponders: Who Loves Him Most?

WEDNESDAY, MAR. 6

“We very much hope that David Letterman stays at CBS,” Leslie Moonves said. It was the evening of March 4, and Mr. Moonves, the president of CBS, was standing in a hallway at the Museum of Television and Radio on West 52nd St, where his network had just shown 9/11 , the much-anticipated Sept. 11 documentary, to a roomful of TV critics.

Mr. Letterman’s status was an odd topic to address after such a sober presentation, but it had been a screwy couple of days for Mr. Moonves and CBS. Since Friday, March 1, when The New York Times reported that Mr. Letterman was pondering a bolt to ABC, CBS had been scrambling behind the scenes not only to mollify the 54-year-old talk-show host, but also to challenge the suggestion that network miscalculations-in particular, a failure to repair a fractured relationship between Mr. Letterman and Mr. Moonves-had led the star to mull a move.

So when a reporter asked him about Dave, Mr. Moonves didn’t seem terribly surprised, despite the occasion.

“We are hopeful that he stays,” he reiterated. Of the alleged impasse between himself and Mr. Letterman, Mr. Moonves smiled and said only: “It’s overrated. Overrated . I like David Letterman and I hope he stays.”

By then, of course, there was a sense that the Late Show stay-or-go pendulum had begun to swing back toward “stay.” Mr. Moonves declined to characterize the situation, but elsewhere there was confidence growing that Mr. Letterman would wind up remaining with CBS. Over the weekend, Mr. Moonves had telephoned Mr. Letterman’s trusted confidante and executive producer, Rob Burnett, to clear the air-and while things weren’t exactly bright and sunny, parties on both sides felt that a layer of civility had returned to the relationship between star and network.

In fact, for all the aggravation the story had caused CBS and Worldwide Pants Inc., Mr. Letterman’s production company, many people seemed to think that ABC was primed to be the biggest loser, since Disney had slapped Nightline, its prestigious 11:35 p.m. news franchise, alienated Ted Koppel, submarined its news division, martyred embattled news president David Westin-and wasn’t certain to get a gap-toothed hire for its trouble.

But that didn’t explain why it had come to this impasse in the first place. In recent years, the perennially cranky Mr. Letterman seemed to have reached a level of compatibility with CBS. He’d never be totally happy, of course, but under Mr. Moonves’ leadership the network had become No. 1 in prime time, and with shows like Survivor and CSI , it was no longer the gray-haired dog Mr. Letterman used to chide it for being. Creatively and energetically, Mr. Letterman’s comeback from heart surgery had given the host a second wind, and the Big Guy’s poignant post–Sept. 11 shows had solidified both his relevance and gravitas.

And though it continued to trail The Tonight Show with Jay Leno , the Late Show’s ratings had improved, too-in fact, the show’s numbers had continued to rise in 2002.

Clearly, however, it wasn’t enough. And now there were multiple theories being floated as to why Mr. Letterman and his cohorts are mulling such an earth-shaking move: ire at CBS’s refusal to allow Worldwide Pants to continue to produce an 11:30 p.m. show on the network when Mr. Letterman stepped down; dissatisfaction with CBS’s age demographics and its 11 p.m. local-news lead-ins; frustration at a perceived lack of network promotion for the Late Show .

The most harmless explanation was that Mr. Letterman, in listening to ABC, was merely doing what anyone else would do in a comparable situation. Since a resolution with CBS had not been reached, Mr. Letterman now had an opportunity to consider another deal. ABC was flirting with him-why not flirt back?

“CBS goofed and allowed this to happen,” said a source familiar with the negotiations. “With the door open, ABC jumped in.”

Still, Mr. Letterman was said to be genuinely opposed to a move that would result in Mr. Koppel being put out to pasture. There was also agreement within Mr. Letterman’s camp that a move to ABC would not exactly alleviate the lead-in problem-although ABC’s affiliates are generally stronger performers for 11 p.m. local news, the network’s prime-time lineup is in the dumps.

Mostly, the rancor between Mr. Letterman and CBS appeared to boil down to intangibles-specifically, love, or a perceived lack thereof. While it’s hard to get a handle on how the press-shy Mr. Letterman defines love-he’s not exactly going on Larry King Live and talking about it-the host and his handlers seem to have concluded that CBS has not been as dutiful a parent as it could be. Because of that, they were open to considering a move.

It’s important to note that Mr. Letterman’s supporters believe he has earned such reverential treatment. To them, Mr. Letterman is not simply a ratings and revenue earner, but a cultural institution, a standard-setter who will be remembered for generations after he signs off the air.

While CBS appears well aware of Mr. Letterman’s significance as a cultural icon, it has not diminished the belief within the host’s circle that the network has not yet learned how to properly embrace him and his talents.

Of course, the sometimes thorny Mr. Letterman isn’t easy to handle. Neither is Worldwide Pants, which not only produces the Late Show and the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn , but also prime-time hits like CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond and NBC’s Ed (the latter produced by Mr. Burnett). Throughout its history, Worldwide Pants, like a lot of production companies, has sought to operate independently. To outsiders, it did not give off the appearance that it wanted or needed regular network involvement-or, for that matter, constant praise. That’s why, to some, the “Where’s the love?” feelings seem weird: a close-knit, low-key company, Worldwide hasn’t exactly been out there trolling for corporate bear hugs.

As for the friction between Mr. Letterman and Mr. Moonves, it may be, as Mr. Moonves suggested, overrated. But clearly there’s been some turbulence in the relationship between the network president and the late-night star. Part of it is a predictable outgrowth of Mr. Moonves’ job and Mr. Letterman’s sense of humor-since his early days on NBC, the host has fashioned himself as the self-deprecating little guy besieged by nitwit bosses. In that sense, Mr. Moonves merely fills a role.

But here and there, some of the joking did hit a nerve-especially last winter, when Mr. Letterman repeatedly tormented Mr. Moonves on the air for a private-jet trip to Cuba that resulted in an audience with Fidel Castro. Mr. Moonves, who had for the most part accepted the Late Show cracks as a hazard of the job, grew weary of the roasting by his own employee. “Some of it is funny and some of it isn’t,” he said at the time.

Mr. Letterman certainly wasn’t the only person making fun of the Castro visit; the trip-which included not only Mr. Moonves, but power brokers like movie producer Brian Grazer, MTV honcho Tom Freston and Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter-drew plenty of media attention. But the Late Show ‘s constant harping on Mr. Moonves sent a signal that Mr. Letterman wasn’t exactly jumping on the network president’s go-team bandwagon, which had grown so formidable during the Survivor wave that Mr. Moonves had been named the most powerful man in Hollywood by Entertainment Weekly .

And around that time, Mr. Moonves did make an effort to address the situation, with unsatisfying results. Not long after the Cuba episode and the resulting joke-athon on the Late Show , Mr. Moonves left CBS headquarters in New York and walked over to the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, where Worldwide Pants has its offices. There, he met with Mr. Letterman, and left believing that the meeting had been positive.

But that night, Mr. Letterman went on the air and began mocking Mr. Moonves again, this time imitating him using a Robert DeNiro–style voice, saying, “You got a problem with me?” In an instant, any internal ground gained in the impromptu meeting between boss and star was lost.

Within Worldwide Pants, there was a sense that CBS should not be distressed but flattered by such treatment, that not only was it par for the course, it made for good television-and that ultimately was what both boss and star wanted.

But the Cuba flap would prove to be a harbinger of future disagreements. As the Times reported on March 4, the rift between Mr. Moonves and Mr. Letterman grew to the point where Mr. Letterman did not take a congratulatory call from the network president the day of Mr. Letterman’s 20th anniversary as a late night talk-show host.

Maybe that’s not what drove it this far; maybe there are other, better reasons why Mr. Letterman is now on the fence and on the covers of tabloids once again. But if Mr. Letterman chooses to stay with CBS, as many expect, one thing’s for certain: The Big Guy will have to straighten things out with the other Big Guy. And this time, there won’t be a Ted Koppel op-ed piece to distract anyone.

Tonight, following a horrible local news lead-in, scant promotion and massive disrespect from the corporate chieftains, The Late Show with David Letterman . In tonight’s show, Mr. Letterman lays into Robert Iger “just to stretch the muscles.” (Actually, it’s a repeat-Dave’s on holiday.) [WCBS, 2, 11:30 p.m.]

THURSDAY, MAR. 7

It was inevitable that Saturday Night Live would get around to skewering the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly. On March 2, SNL player Jeff Richards portrayed Mr. O’Reilly as (surprise, surprise) a big-shouldered blowhard who berated guests and insisted that his screwy facts-for instance, that New York City, not Albany, was the capital of New York State-were unimpeachable.

So what did the actual big mouth think of the satire?

“I thought it was droll,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “I was amused. I was just watching the show-I had no idea it was going to come on.”

But Mr. O’Reilly said he felt Fox’s own MADtv had done a better job at satirizing him. Still, he acknowledged that Mr. Richard succeeded in mimicking his mannerisms-arched brows, upturned hands-and verbal tics.

“It was amusing for me to watch, just to see where they were going to go,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “In the MADtv one, they took a more confrontational interview style. This one, they took an ‘O’Reilly has no idea what he is talking about’ style. Both were amusing. Both were inaccurate.”

Citing his own inside source, Mr. O’Reilly said SNL had actually intended to do a parody of his show “a couple of years ago,” but was pressured by NBC to satirize its own blowhard, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

“NBC killed it and said, ‘Why don’t you do Matthews instead?'” Mr. O’Reilly said. “Which they did because he’s an NBC guy.”

A representative for Saturday Night Live declined to comment on Mr. O’Reilly’s allegation. Tonight on The O’Reilly Factor , Mr. O’Reilly wonders when his SCTV skit is coming. [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]

FRIDAY, MAR. 8

Meanwhile, the Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto doesn’t need SNL -he’s supplying plenty of humor himself. On March 1, Mr. Cavuto welcomed the recently installed Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller on the air to talk about her magazine, and during the course of the interview, not only did Mr. Cavuto refer to Us Weekly publisher Jann Wenner as “Jan Wenner”- hard J, as in “Jan Brady”-he also called Us Weekly “U.S. Weekly,” as if it were a Mort Zuckerman news magazine. Both boners are understandable for lay people who have never heard of either Us Weekly or Mr. Wenner, but if you have the editor of Mr. Wenner’s Us Weekly on your TV show, well, it’s pretty dang hilarious.

Mr. Cavuto gamely took the hit for the blunder, saying he made a mistake in writing his introduction to Ms. Fuller’s appearance. “It’s my own doing,” he said, adding: “It humbles me.”

Mr. Cavuto did think that making Ms. Fuller the new editor of “U.S. Weekly” sounded like an upgrade. “I promoted her!” he said.

Today on Your World With Neil Cavuto , Mr. Cavuto welcomes Zbigniew Brzezinski, Zsa Zsa Gabor, former Boston Bruins goaltender Gilles Gilbert and Sade. [FNC, 46, 4 p.m.]

SATURDAY, MAR. 9

Tonight, Jon Stewart hosts Saturday Night Live with India.Arie, who didn’t do so hot at the Grammys herself. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]

SUNDAY, MAR. 10

Tonight, on the eve of the six-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., CBS will present 9/11 , a film featuring footage of the World Trade Center attack shot by French documentary filmmakers Gedeon and Jules Naudet. The Naudet brothers were chronicling a New York City probationary fireman for a documentary when the attack occurred, and shot more than 180 hours of up-close footage-including inside the lobby of Tower One-on Sept. 11.

The CBS presentation will be the public’s first viewing of the Naudets’ work, but it’s certainly not the first time it’s been seen in the city. Sources said that unedited tapes of the footage have been circulating among New York City firefighters for some time. They aren’t exactly bootleg copies; the Naudets, who are using the CBS project to help raise money for the Uniformed Firefighters Association Scholarship Fund, have been remarkably free with their work, offering it to the department for institutional use and to families of firefighters for personal viewing. They have also offered the tapes to the feds; on March 4, at the press screening at the Museum of Television & Radio, the brothers said that they happily gave their footage to the F.B.I., who reviewed it and returned it to them after two days. [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]

MONDAY, MAR. 11

Tonight, the officially-looking-for-what-to-do-next Behind the Music examines the addled, sex-addicted … 1999. “Man, 1999 was really on a highway to hell. I remember this one show in Raleigh-man, oh man,” 1998 tells VH1. [VH1, 19, 8 p.m.]

TUESDAY, MAR. 12

In honor of New York Times guest Op-Ed columnist Ted Koppel, feed your soul tonight with a little bit of Nightline before doing your part to end the era of quality news programming by heading off to Shipmates . [WABC, 7, 11:35 p.m.]