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
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.
[CBS, 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.
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
Tonight on the Daily Show, Mr. Stewart
dishes out Smuckers to geezers. [Comedy Central, 11 p.m.]