Morgan At Large: LETTERMAN – Just Another Great American Hero

The only story about David Letterman’s defection to CBS that’s not suffering from overkill is why the story was so big in the first place. Until this week, it commanded more attention – outside the Beltway, anyway – than the Inauguration. And as a saga that began 19 months ago, when NBC picked Jay Leno over Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson on The T.
The sustained drama served up more references to ‘top 10’ lists and ‘stupid pet tricks’ than a media consumer should have to bear. Letterman may not have been entirely kidding when, after a Thursday night press conference, he confided to a CBS reporter, ‘All I can say is our long national nightmare is over.’
Our unflagging interest is even more perplexing considering our steady diet of talk-show talk. The Letterman saga was precipitated by Carson’s exit, which produced its own media noshing long before that mega-event took place last May. Compared to Johnny, President George Bush is virtually stealing into the night.
The ratings don’t justify the hubbub either. Many a host has sunk into oblivion (remember Rick Dees?) on semi-respectable ratings. And though Letterman the comic may be without peer, he certainly isn’t without proteges. CBS’s greatest risk, in my view, is that a doubling in Letterman’s late-night share will lead to a doubling in the number of Letterman wannabes.
Let’s face it: Not everyone can get away with the line, as Letterman did when asked last week if any format changes were afoot, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, we’d like to be in color. . . . That’s right off the top of my head.’ And not every boss is as game as NBC parent General Electric was when Letterman, asked if GE knew how to run a network, replied: ‘Have your tried their toaster ovens? They’re not a bad product.’
But Letterman, his polished sarcasm notwithstanding, is something other talk-show hosts can’t begin to imitate. He’s also a product – a vestige, really – of network dominance. His 11 seasons as the host of Late Night were preceded by a three-month stint, also on NBC, as host of a morning variety show. That makes him a network fixture since 1980, and he began appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which he guest-hosted 50 times, in 1978.
Letterman got himself established before cable and VCRs, in other words. He was a known commodity before media fragmentation even began. That, today, makes him an established brand, a late-night franchise. He’s not an all-American hero so much as a hero to all of America. He is to his daypart what Walter Cronkite was to broadcast journalism, what Cary Grant was to the studio system – the product of a cohesive culture and bygone era.
The distinction is worth plenty. The CBS press conference even had the feel of a Hollywood event, with Letterman acting more star than interviewee. Some professional observers wonder if it can ever happen again.
Today’s media environment, being so fractured, may no longer be capable of producing what is – even by American standards – a phenomenal amount of interest. ‘It’s hard to generate the mass audience you need to create legends of that stature anymore,’ says Stephen Battaglio, manager of media relations for ABC.
What’s more, Letterman, at 45, promises to keep his cachet for decades to come. That’s why Howard Stringer, president of CBS/Broadcast Group, introduced his late-night hope by calling him ‘a signature for this network the likes of which we haven’t seen in years.’ It’s also why Letterman could accept such praise as his smugly confident self. ‘Honestly,’ he said, ‘we should not have too much difficulty being competitive. We’ve been doing it for 11 years.’
Although the economics look promising for CBS, the endeavor isn’t without risks. Once NBC replaces Late Night, most likely with Dana Carvey, and once Chevy Chase shows up on Fox, the daypart’s talk-show inventory will be expanded by two hours a night. Throw in Arsenio Hall, and that’s five comics-turned-hosts all in pursuit of the same young, urban, light-viewing male.
My hunch is that a lot of viewers, even those cheering Letterman on, will bounce back and forth between commercials and guests. And, as with Carson, many millions more will be sleeping instead of watching, but glad, nevertheless, that Letterman is there. One never knows when insomnia will strike.
Advertisers will be the most obvious beneficiary – thanks to the boom in the daypart’s commercial supply, as well as to the demise of NBC’s late-night franchise. But there may be a less obvious beneficiary, and that’s ABC’s Nightline. For Ted Koppel also is a franchise of the old-fashioned kind. And though his appeal is to a different demographic set, there’s neither a run on his audience nor an increase in Nightline’s commercial supply.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)