March 13 – March 19, 2002 Dave Stays in Imperfect Marriage With CBS

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

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.]