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 .
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
will stay at Comedy Central for as long as Jon wants to stay,” Mr. Hilary said.
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.
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.
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.
the Daily Show is with Comedy Central
to stay for a long time,” he said.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
and its Eyewitness News dominates the
early news time period.
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.
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.
doesn’t really concern me,” he said.
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
VH1′s got a new show called Ultimate Albums , and tonight they
examine- Pet Sounds , 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.]