Letterman Holds, Resigned to CBS as Flawed Match

Not long ago, Rob Burnett, the president of Worldwide Pants,

David Letterman’s production company, was watching an episode of the NBC hit The West Wing when a little NBC peacock

logo fluttered across the screen, revealing an advertisement for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno .

Mr. Burnett was impressed. “You look at that and you go, ‘Wow,

these people are really looking after The

Tonight Show ,'” he said, speaking of NBC.

Mr. Burnett said he didn’t mean to imply the Late Show needed a CBS version of the flying peacock. But talking

late on the night of Monday, March 11-several hours after Mr. Letterman agreed

to eschew a $31-million-a-year offer from ABC and stay at CBS for about a

half-million more-Mr. Burnett said the fluttering peacock was an example of the

kind of care and innovation the Late Show

wanted from its own network.

“You just want to get the feeling that the network is looking out

for you to the same extent that the competition is looking out for our

competition,” Mr. Burnett said.

Mr. Letterman had agreed to remain with CBS after assurances that

they, too, would energetically promote and attend to his show. But the marriage

between CBS and star still felt-as it always has-slightly uncomfortable. Mr.

Letterman had been aggressively courted by Disney to go to ABC, and promised

lavish attention and promotion. The affection was not without consequence-Disney

had alienated its news division and one of its own stars, Ted Koppel-but it had

been exciting.

So, as much as it settled the roiling media controversy of the

past week and a half, Mr. Letterman’s announcement had a melancholy,

risk-averse feel to it. The devil Dave knew, the old theory went, was better

than the one he didn’t.

Still, Mr. Burnett was in a good mood about the decision, saying

he was happy that CBS won out by “stepping up.” He downplayed the squabbling on

both sides, in particular reports of a rift between Mr. Letterman and CBS

president Leslie Moonves. And yet he acknowledged the network and the Late Show remained an odd pairing.

“Is it a perfect fit?” Mr. Burnett asked. “Not exactly all the

time. But the fit is getting better and better. I think CBS is a different

network now under Les than it was five or six years ago.”

Under Mr. Moonves, CBS has indeed grown significantly in prime

time. Mr. Burnett was quick to credit the network’s improving prime-time lineup

for the Late Show ‘s own ratings gains

over the past year. “The 12 percent gain we had in our demo last year-give it

all to Les,” Mr. Burnett said. “He’s the reason-100 percent Les. It had nothing

to do with us.”

Still, Mr. Burnett and Mr. Letterman feel the network can do more

to lift its late-night franchise. Mr. Burnett, who also produces the prime-time

show Ed for NBC, believes that

neither CBS’s performance in prime time at the 10 p.m. hour nor the performance

of its local news affiliates at 11 p.m. is what it should be.

Such impediments, Mr. Burnett said, prevent the Late Show from topping the ratings of

Mr. Leno and the Tonight Show . Mr.

Burnett theorized that if Mr. Letterman’s show appeared on NBC in Mr. Leno’s

current slot, the Late Show ‘s ratings

performance would improve drastically.

“Without insulting CBS as we sit here and launch into going into

business with them for another great many years, hopefully, I do believe that

if the Late Show were plucked off of

CBS and put on NBC, for example, I believe the numbers would near double,

frankly,” Mr. Burnett said. He added: “That’s O.K.”

To be sure, there is lingering frustration at Worldwide Pants

because the Late Show regularly loses

in the ratings to the Tonight Show.

Though Mr. Burnett said the Late Show ‘s

staffers do not focus on the ratings, clearly he and his colleagues are not

satisfied with finishing a respectable second, winning Emmy Awards and

polishing Mr. Letterman’s reputation as a late-night giant.

“You have a show that generates $225 million of income for the

network, so there is a difference from being a sort of little cult show,” Mr.

Burnett said. “This is a big-time network show, so now that you’re a big-time

network show, do you want to be No. 1 in your time slot? Sure you do.”

That is partly why Disney’s bid for Mr. Letterman felt so

enticing. Though its prime-time lineup is in tatters, ABC’s affiliates are

stronger at the 11 p.m. local news hour, and Disney was promising mega-promotion on a multitude of properties,

including the ESPN sports network.

Mr. Burnett said there were several times during the negotiations

that he thought Mr. Letterman would go to ABC. “There were points during that

decision-making process that I believed, if I had to bet my money, I would have

bet we were going,” Mr. Burnett said. But he added: “And there were other times

where I would have bet we were staying.”

Still, Mr. Burnett said he arrived at Worldwide Pants and the Late Show ‘s headquarters on West 53rd

Street on March 11 not knowing what Mr. Letterman’s final decision would be. He

had spoken several times to Mr. Letterman during the latter’s vacation in St.

Barts the previous week, mostly to talk about media coverage of the tug of war,

and he knew that Mr. Letterman wanted to resolve the issue by Monday or, at the

latest, Tuesday.

It would only take one day. After both the ABC and CBS offers

were reevaluated, Mr. Letterman decided by the afternoon to stay at CBS. Both

networks were called and told the news. Not long afterwards, Mr. Moonves

arrived at the Late Show offices, and

congratulations and thanks were extended from both sides.

Mr. Burnett said that conflicts between Mr. Moonves and his

network and the Late Show had been

overstated. “It’s a nine-year relationship,” he said of the Late Show , which moved to CBS in 1993.

“It’s an intense relationship. There’s going to be tussles, there are going to

be some arguments, there is even going to be some screaming here and there. Any

time you have a bunch of smart people that care in a room, you are going to

have some tussles. But that’s all they were.”

Mr. Burnett said that Viacom-owned CBS had made a recent,

vigorous bid to secure the Late Show

with its own multi-property promotion plan. In the end, he said, “there was

nothing in the CBS relationship alone that warranted us leaving the network.”

Mr. Burnett said that Worldwide Pants had not, as has been

suggested, made a contractual demand to retain control of the 11:30 p.m. time

slot once Mr. Letterman retired. However, he said, Worldwide Pants hoped it

would get first crack at developing that hour when Mr. Letterman decided to

leave.

Mr. Letterman walked onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater that

night and cracked that things had gotten so strange, NBC had offered him the Tonight Show . He then went to his desk

and, in a speech that Mr. Burnett said was expected but unscripted, announced

he had decided to stay at CBS.

Mr. Letterman also spoke fondly of Ted Koppel, saying the ABC

newscaster-whom the Late Show had

almost displaced-“deserved the right to determine his own professional future.”

Mr. Letterman, of course, had at least decided where his own

professional future would be. Now it was time to see if everyone could make it

work.

Tonight, the Late Show with David Letterman . [WCBS, 2, 11:35 p.m.]

 

Thursday, Mar. 14

The real beneficiary of the Letterman

dispute was probably The Daily Show ‘s Jon Stewart, who

did jack nothing and saw his boiling stock rise amid the ABC-CBS late-night

showdown. Mr. Stewart’s name was repeatedly mentioned as a Plan B if Mr.

Letterman departed CBS-or chose to stay, forcing ABC to consider different

late-night options.

This attention is a mixed blessing for Mr. Stewart’s current

employer, Comedy Central. The cable network is pleased that their guy is so

coveted by broadcast executives, but knows that the attention will only make

negotiations for Mr. Stewart’s services more competitive-read: expensive-as the

expiration of his contract approaches, in January 2003.

Mr. Stewart is currently one of the cheaper hosts in late-night

television, at about $2 million per year. That’s not exactly minimum

wage-especially for cable, where the audiences and revenue are significantly

smaller than broadcast-but it’s a fraction of Mr. Letterman’s $31.5 million

haul, or Conan O’Brien’s new $8-million-a-year deal with NBC.

Comedy Central has been in the midst of trying to renegotiate Mr.

Stewart’s deal for nearly a year. Bill Hilary, Comedy Central’s general

manager, said he is eager to keep Mr. Stewart, calling him a “huge asset” for

the network.

“Jon will stay at Comedy Central for as long as Jon wants to

stay,” Mr. Hilary said.

Mr. Hilary rejected speculation that Mr. Stewart could leave and

take the Daily Show with him. Before

Mr. Letterman opted to stay at CBS, there was talk that if the Late Show left, Viacom, CBS’s parent and

a half-owner of Comedy Central, might slide the Daily Show to its late-night broadcast operation, in an act of

corporate synergy.

But Mr. Hilary said such a maneuver would be highly unlikely.

First, he said, AOL Time Warner owns the other half of Comedy Central, and

would probably be resistant to Viacom, a rival, moving the Daily Show to CBS. The same would be true of Viacom if AOL Time

Warner tried to move the Daily Show

to one of its networks, such as HBO, Mr. Hilary said.

Further, Mr. Hilary said that Comedy Central regards the Daily Show as a prized network

property-one it would not easily part with. The Daily Show has established itself as a flexible format, succeeding

with two stylistically different hosts: the self-deprecating Mr. Stewart and

his cocky-boy predecessor, Craig Kilborn. Mr. Hilary said he could see the show

continuing on with a new host when and if Mr. Stewart leaves.

“I think the Daily Show

is with Comedy Central to stay for a long time,” he said.

Though others at Comedy Central said Mr. Stewart’s popularity had

magnified concern about keeping him, Mr. Hilary said the affection of competing

network executives had not made Comedy Central more aggressive about reworking

his deal.

“Let’s put it this way: As soon as the press sort of got this

story two weeks ago, I didn’t all of a sudden go, ‘Let’s renegotiate Jon’s

contract,'” Mr. Hilary said. “We’re always

talking to him.”

But Mr. Hilary acknowledged he had considered his options should

Mr. Stewart leave sooner rather than later. “That’s my job,” he said. “Do I

want Jon Stewart to leave? Absolutely not. He is a brilliant star, and he has

done a lot for the network. Do I have a secondary plan? Of course.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the

Daily Show with David Brenner ! A representative for Mr. Stewart did not

return a request for comment by press time. Mr. Stewart, however, did joke

about his belle-of-the-ball status when he hosted Saturday Night Live on March 9.

“I would do anything,” he said. “I would do Dave, Leno,

Conan-anybody who wants to leave. Willard Scott, you tired of waving at old

people? I’ll take that. I work on basic cable.”

Tonight on the Daily Show ,

Mr. Stewart dishes out Smuckers to geezers. [COM,

46, 11 p.m.]

Friday, Mar. 15

The other Big TV Kahuna who

decided to stay this week was Oprah Winfrey, who announced that she would

continue to host her daytime yapfest until 2006, when Jonathan Franzen’s

favorite talk show will turn a sprightly 20.

Ms. Winfrey’s status had been giving some television executives

heart palpitations, especially those in local news. While Mr. Letterman’s

handlers groaned that poor local news performance at 11 p.m. was hurting their

ratings, Ms. Winfrey’s show remains a powerful lead-in for local news, helping

many early-evening newscasts win their markets. Such is the case here in New

York City, where WABC has Oprah, and its Eyewitness News dominates the early news time period.

WABC news director Dan Forman was tickled that Ms. Winfrey

decided to stay for another four years, calling it “great news.” He said he’d

been worried that she might leave after next season.

The only competitor in recent years that has managed to mount a

serious challenge to Oprah is Judge Judy , which runs on WNBC. A newer

entrant is a game-show pairing on WCBS, which runs a new version of The Weakest Link and, soon, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire . But Mr.

Forman didn’t sound like he was shaking in his shoes about that line-up.

“That doesn’t really concern me,” he said.

What about the Joker’s Wild – Press Your Luck double bill? That’ll

shoot shivers up your spine. Today on Oprah,

someone hugs pillow, offers inane profundities, gets whopping book deal. [WABC, 7, 4 p.m.]

Saturday, Mar. 16

Tonight on Saturday Night Live , that

old wizard Ian McKellen. [WNBC, 4, 11:35

p.m.]

Sunday, Mar. 17

5

VH1’s got a new show called Ultimate Albums , and tonight they

examine- Blonde on Blonde ? 3 Feet High and Rising ?

Shoot Out the Lights ? Talking Book ?- Dookie , by Green Day. Cripes, VH1. [VH1, 19, 9 p.m.]

Monday, Mar. 18

Tonight on NBC, after idiots munch on

pig innards on Fear Factor , leave it

to Colin Quinn to try and restore some dignity to the network on The

Colin Quinn Show . [WNBC, 4, 9:30

p.m.]

Tuesday, Mar. 19

Tonight E! has the confidently titled Russell

Crowe: Road to the Red Carpet .

Of course, now everyone would like to see Mr. Crowe trip on said carpet. [E!, 24, 10 p.m.]