Letterman's new set may build ratings for ''Late Show''

By Aaron Barnhart
Updated April 05, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

When David Letterman stepped on stage March 26 to tape his 561st Late Show, he had a new executive producer on the floor — and a new floor. For only the second time in his 14 years of hosting a late-night talk show, Letterman has had his TV stage completely remade.

The official word from the show is that the overhaul addresses shortcomings of the original studio, built at an estimated cost of $4 million just three years ago. But Late Show‘s stalled ratings — which continue to hover below those of its rival, The Tonight Show on NBC — probably have more to do with it. In fact, the change of scenery mirrors a similar makeover initiated by Jay Leno in 1994, at a time when his own late-night career was at a low ebb. Inspired by the cramped, high-octane New York studios of Saturday Night Live, Leno asked NBC to build him an upscale version in Burbank. The redesign collapsed the space between host, audience, and band, and, more important, instantly energized Leno. Soon he was crowing that the show was ”l00 times better.” Bill Zehme, who is writing a book with Leno, says, ”Jay likes to be right there. For him, it’s all about proximity with the audience.” Apparently it worked for viewers, too: Within months, Leno’s ratings were surpassing Letterman’s.

Robert Morton, until recently the executive producer of Late Show, bristled at the comparison to Leno: ”New set — big deal!” But other recent alterations — including Morton’s replacement by former head writer Rob Burnett on March 8, subsequent staff shake-ups, a more relaxed opening sequence, and a switch in camera angles (which de-emphasizes the rowdier studio audiences) — imply that drastic changes were considered necessary. Even more than Morton’s departure, the new set could be the strongest indication that Letterman is trying to avoid Arsenio Hall’s fate — hosting a once-hot program gone stale. ”Changing scenery might be the only way for Dave to feel he’s getting a fresh start,” offers Zehme.

A seven-figure price tag is what CBS is most likely looking at for this tweak in perception. ”We’re trying to meld a downtown New York look with the Gothic style of the original theater,” says production designer Kathleen Ankers. The key words now: classy, sedate, airy. Gone are the gaudy red floor, the garish montage of Times Square-style billboards, the windows behind Dave’s desk, and most of the brown brickwork. In their place are cooler blues and grays, and elaborate models of famous New York bridges that stretch across the stage. One element that won’t change: the infamously chilly studio temperature, which will remain at 52 degrees, per Dave. Some things you don’t mess with.

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