Lead to Letterman, One Night a Week
By BILL CARTER The New York Times December 6, 2004
If the late-night television competition between Jay Leno and David Letterman really were a war, as it has often been described, it would be the Hundred Years' War. At least. And after a long period of quiet, the latest battle, or at least skirmish, seems to be taking a different turn. David Letterman is making a fight of it on Monday nights. The ratings for late night have consistently favored Mr. Leno for about eight years, to a point where it appeared that Mr. Letterman had no realistic hope of competing on an even basis again. But that trend seems to have shifted, if only slightly, thanks to Mondays.
"Late Show With David Letterman" has had some overall ratings growth this season, while "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" has slipped a bit. But it is on Mondays that the change is most noticeable.
At CBS this is being trumpeted as the harbinger of a monumental comeback, while at NBC the latest numbers are being greeted with so-what shrugs. But Mr. Letterman's side is making one point aggressively. During the current season, "Late Show" has won relatively often on Monday nights, both among total viewers and in the category that NBC says is the one that really counts, viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. (NBC uses that standard because it sells its commercials based on those ratings.)
Rob Burnett, an executive producer of "Late Show," who also runs Mr. Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, said he was willing to "play on NBC's terms," referring to the 18-to-49 group. He pointed out that Mr. Letterman had beaten Mr. Leno in that group six times so far this season on Mondays while losing three.
Overall Mr. Letterman has picked up about 380,000 more viewers this season, and Mr. Leno, who is still comfortably ahead, has lost about 290,000.
Mr. Burnett is not arguing that Mr. Letterman's show has become appreciably better. "It has very little to do with the quality of the shows," Mr. Burnett said. He also dismisses any idea that Mr. Leno may have been affected by NBC's announcement that its other late-night star, Conan O'Brien, would be taking over for Mr. Leno in five years.
Instead, he points to what is different about Mondays. CBS has become a powerhouse in prime time on Mondays, especially at 10 p.m., when its "CSI: Miami" has trounced all of NBC's entries. Though CBS and NBC show local news before the late-night shows, the "CSI" lead-in has spilled over to benefit Mr. Letterman.
For Mr. Burnett this development represents validation after years of NBC declaring Mr. Leno the definitive late-night champ. Mr. Burnett had protested far and wide that it was all about the lead-ins, which NBC dominated at 10 p.m. for much of the decade. NBC dismissed this as excuse-making.
"The days when Jay was beating Dave were based solely on the strength of NBC's prime-time lineup and late local news," Mr. Burnett said. "As that strength is evaporating, 'The Tonight Show' is finally being exposed."
At least on one night of the week, that is. Mr. Leno still wins the other nights, many handily. But with help from "CSI," Mr. Letterman is clearly faring better.
"For years people have been saying the late-night wars are over," Mr. Burnett said. " 'Jay beats Dave because America loves Jay.' Well, do they love Jay less on Mondays?"
NBC declared final victory - if not quite mission accomplished - two years ago and again last year when Jeff Zucker, who was then the president of NBC Entertainment (he is now president of the NBC Universal Entertainment Group), said flatly, "There is no more late-night war."
And he is not backing off. "I see no evidence to suggest that it's changed," Mr. Zucker said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Letterman's improvement this season, Mr. Zucker said, was really a return to the status quo of two and three years ago. "Last year was the aberration," he said. "Dave was in a big slump and Jay was especially strong."
The evidence, he said, was in the differential between the two shows in that 18-49 rating group so far this season. Mr. Zucker pointed out that Mr. Leno led Mr. Letterman by .4 of rating point in that category this season, down from .8 last season. But he said Mr. Leno led by the same .4 in both 2002 and 2001.
Mr. Leno's lead remains large enough that his show can legitimately be called dominant. To cite the current numbers as some kind of comeback by Mr. Letterman would be unfair, Mr. Zucker argued, in the same way that some news accounts had been unfair to NBC's "Today" show over the past several years when its rival, ABC's "Good Morning America," occasionally cut into its traditionally huge ratings lead.
" 'Today' has won 500 weeks in a row," Mr. Zucker said. "Jay has won 122 of the last 123 weeks. He has won 38 of 44 nights this season. Instead of being 44 and 0, he's 38 and 6."
The six nights, of course, were Mondays, which circles back to the "Late Show" argument about lead-ins. The producers of "Late Show" certainly believe it has momentum on Mondays. That is the reason it books the best guests it can on that night. Tom Hanks, Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Farrell appeared on Mondays last month.
Mr. Burnett said the big star bookings work because CBS was able to promote those appearances on its heavily watched shows earlier in the night. He noted that some years ago when Mr. Letterman booked one of his most frequent guests, the sportscaster Marv Albert, when he was caught in a sex scandal, the show expected a big ratings boost that never came.
"Without a lead-in to promote these people, you're spitting into the wind," Mr. Burnett said.
He accused NBC of resorting to "all kinds of spin" by arguing that "Late Show" was only returning to where it had been two and three years ago. "They're cutting off history at the most convenient point for them," Mr. Burnett said.
If you go back a little farther, he said, the advantage Mr. Leno held over Mr. Letterman, in every category, including that 18 to 49 group, was wider: in 2000 it was .7 of a rating point, .9 the year before that.
He noted that Mr. Leno had benefited mightily on Thursday nights, on which NBC had television's biggest drama, "ER." (NBC has used Thursdays to book its best guests as CBS now uses Mondays.) But Mr. Letterman has made inroads on that night as well, again, Mr. Burnett says, because CBS's prime time has become so strong on Thursday.
"The analogy I offer is two restaurants," he said. "One has an exit off the freeway and the other you have to find by the back roads. Suddenly we have an exit too. But it takes a while for people to realize it's there."
Mr. Burnett gave full credit to the CBS chairman and program chief, Leslie Moonves, for the network's turnaround in prime time (CBS has passed NBC this season for first place). "Les has built us that exit ramp and a whole super highway leading to that ramp," he said.
Mr. Zucker said he was forced to wonder why, with CBS having this degree of success, Mr. Letterman was not doing better. And he swatted away concerns that CBS's surge in prime time was a long-term threat to Mr. Leno's supremacy.
"It took Les nine years to get to first place," Mr. Zucker said. "It's not like we're going to be out of first place for nine years."
But the mini-trend this season is apparently enough to make the producers of "Late Show" cocky again, after years of eating crow. They are even daring to dream and to willingly stick out their necks. "I think if the current trend continues, the 'Late Show' will be No. 1 again," Mr. Burnett said. "Originally I thought it would take two years. Now I think it could be as early as 18 months."
Back to the trenches.