Late-night TV could be heading for its biggest shake-up in a decade if David Letterman accepts ABC’s bid to lure him away from CBS. The New York Times and the Associated Press both reported on Friday that ABC has been in talks with Letterman in hopes of persuading him to switch networks when his contract expires in August. ”Late Show” producer Rob Burnett told AP, ”We are continuing negotiations with [CBS],” and he declined to discuss the terms either network was offering. But if Dave does move at the end of his ninth year, ABC would have to force out its bedrock late-night show ”Nightline” and its follow-up, ”Politically Incorrect,” while CBS would be left with a gaping hole.
Among the top 10 reasons Letterman might move: his longtime frustration over the lack of momentum he gets from his lead-in shows at CBS (the network’s sluggish 10 p.m. programs and the often low-rated 11 p.m. newscasts of its local affiliates); stronger lead-ins from ABC’s local newscasts in many markets; what Letterman sees as inadequate promotional support from CBS; personal friction with network chief Leslie Moonves; a possible raise (he currently earns about $20 million a year); and the chance to try something a little different after a combined 20 years on NBC and CBS. ”It’s an easy way to keep his career alive and active,” says EW’s Ken Tucker. ”He’d be the only person to have hosted a late-night show on all three major networks, which would mean a lot to someone who’s spent his whole career in the shadow of Johnny Carson.”
”On the Disney/ABC side of it,” Tucker says, ”they’re obviously looking for a way to kill ‘Politically Incorrect.”’ Host Bill Maher has grumbled that he’s not long for the network ever since the controversy over his injudicious post-9/11 remarks embarrassed ABC, and he’s indicated he’d like to try talk radio. But what about Ted Koppel, whose venerable ”Nightline” has held the 11:35 slot for 22 years? His show and Letterman’s both draw a nightly audience of about 4 million, but Letterman’s are the younger viewers advertisers crave, while Koppel’s are mostly over 35. The Times reports that ”Nightline” and ”PI” lose about $10 million a year, while Letterman’s ”Late Show” turns a healthy profit. Says Tucker, ”If they feel Koppel has outlasted his usefulness, they don’t have the sentimentality and loyalty to the hard news tradition that he represents.”
What would CBS do if Letterman leaves? ”They’re certainly not going to move Craig Kilborn into his slot,” Tucker says. ”It would be ironic if they had to end up putting in a news program. Or they could make a big play for Jon Stewart and take the risk that his young audience would follow him from Comedy Central.”
If Letterman switches, he certainly won’t be able to stay in the Ed Sullivan Theater; in fact, he might leave New York altogether. If he were to broadcast from Los Angeles, he’d have an easier time booking A-list guests. Plus, he’d get to take on Jay Leno, who outmaneuvered him for Carson’s ”Tonight Show” slot 10 years ago and who regularly beats him in the ratings, on Leno’s own turf. ”It would be a really interesting battle if he did go out to Los Angeles and really went head to head against Jay,” Tucker says. That would be booking-war Armageddon.”