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Will Letterman leave by next summer, or...?
I have it on good authority -- let's call this one better than a hunch -- that David Letterman has not, repeat not, signed an extension that will keep him on "Late Show" through 2012, as widely reported early last summer.In fact, as it now stands, his deal carries him only through next August. And then . . . that's it, maybe. Ten more months, and then . . . How significant is this? In light of his recent troubles, it could be hugely significant. Or, it could be business as usual. Honestly, I'm not entirely sure which.
Who could replace Dave? I've got some ideas. But let's give you a little background, first. Last June, the Hollywood Reporter broke a story saying Letterman was about to sign an extension that would keep him at "Late Show" through 2012; this was significant for two reasons. First, it would bring Dave to 30 years in late night, or exactly equal to his idol Johnny Carson. 2) It would give Dave and CBS solid footing to consolidate their lead at 11:35. Even before this signing was about to take place, it was clear that Conan -- just days on the air -- was not going to hold Jay's audience and certainly hasn't. The Times followed the story next, and here's the top of Bill Carter's wrap: "David Letterman will continue hosting his ''Late Show'' on CBS through August 2012 -- and maybe longer. Mr. Letterman and CBS have worked out a new contract, though an announcement may not be made for several days. "Executives involved in the negotiations said on Tuesday that Mr. Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants, and CBS have agreed on the details of the contract, including, for the first time, a reduced license fee for his 11:35 p.m. program, and are waiting for a ''deal memo'' that would lay out the terms in formal language. "The news of the new deal for Mr. Letterman was first reported in The Hollywood Reporter. "The most significant parts of the deal, according to a senior executive close to the negotiations, were the concession by Worldwide Pants that CBS would pay less for the show over the next two years, and the absence of any specific stipulation that this would definitely be the last run in late night for Mr. Letterman, who is 62."
I also confirmed the pending deal but Bill's story had the dynamite -- that the license fee had been hit, and that Dave might stay on BEYOND 2012. And then something happened. More specifically, nothing happened. No announcement was made. There was no further word, and no final confirmation. The most significant line in the Times was that Letterman was "waiting for a 'deal memo' that would lay out the terms in formal language."
In other words, someone, possibly at the network, jumped the gun.
As late as early September, a Variety piece noted that now CBS was closing in on an extension for Craig Ferguson similar to the one it had been "hammering out for months with Letterman." In other words, again, still no deal for Dave.So, what's going on here? Now, we venture into the world of speculation -- caveat emptor. Let's start with some basic facts. The last few years before June 2009, Letterman had been a particularly happy host. His relationship with CBS was solid, the show was better than ever, and same with the host -- finally, completely, a master of the hardest job in television, and his legacy as one of the greatest broadcasters and entertainers in TV history assured. Of his future, here's what he said in a "Rolling Stone" interview two years ago: "Well, the way I feel now, I would like to go beyond 2010, not much beyond, but you know, enough to go beyond. You always like to be able to excuse yourself on your own terms. If the network is happy with that, great. If they wanna make a change in 2010, you know, I'm fine with that, too." Then there’s this: Most observers assume Dave wants to match Johnny Carson in longevity. He worships Carson, whose tenure was 30 years, too. If he matches Johnny, fine. If he exceeds Carson? That almost feels presumptive and disrespectful. So, in a perfect world: Thirty years, or 2012, would be the ideal exit point. But why not sign? Consider that the week in June when his deal was reportedly, the Sarah Palin controversy exploded. Letterman made his ill advised joke about the daughter, and the Right Wing attacked with a fury unlike anything he'd ever seen in his career. Did Dave then say: Who needs this hassle? Did his relationship with CBS sour -- considering that the network was also under furious assault and wanted him to apologize for the remarks as well? Maybe. But I think there's an even more plausible reason. Why sign a deal forcing you to cut back on your license fee when you are about to kick the butt of the competition?
Which is exactly is what Letterman has done the last couple of months. Letterman and Worldwide Pants are -- or were -- in the driver's seat. Why agree to their less-favorable terms, when you could set your own? Then the Halderman/Birkitt scandal hit. The significance here -- that there are no longer absolute assurances any longer that Letterman will even last through next summer. One last point before I leave you: As Variety reported, CBS has also been trying to tie Craig Ferguson to a two-year extension, through 2012. How does Craig fit into this unfolding drama . . . You'll have to tune in later for a possible answer.