The following is an article that ran in Newsday on Aug. 22, 1993, one week before the first airing of the "Late Show With David Letterman," on Aug. 30, 1993.
1. So what exactly is new about CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman?"
"Same Dave, different station," CBS has said over and over. But same show? Letterman - during protracted negotiations with NBC - implied that he would do a slightly different program if he got the cherished 11:35 time slot. Reasons are both pragmatic and personal. Pragmatic, because Letterman recognizes that his new audience at 11:35 (beginning Aug. 30) will not only be larger but more varied (not just caffeine-crazed college kids anymore). Personal, because he apparently wants to try new things and grow in his new role at CBS. But it's unlikely Letterman and crew will foist a revolutionary new format on viewers. Changes will be slight and gradual. In the early going, at least, the show probably will not veer too far from familiar territory. And despite legal threats by NBC, Letterman has said he'll retain the "Top 10 List" and "Stupid Pet Tricks," among other famous gags. Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band has been rechristened "Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra." 2. What will Jay Leno do differently - if anything - from the other late-night folks?
Pity poor Leno: His network almost fired him to keep Dave, and merciless critics - who have blasted "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" - probably have made him wish at times that it succeeded. But Leno is nothing if not adaptable. He has said that a handful of subtle production changes will take place over the next few weeks and months (a new theme song, backdrop and curtain), but the basic show will remain the same. Instead, Leno has worked on the little things that are crucial to the program. The monologue, for example: Leno said it eventually will expand from four minutes to an average of eight. Obviously, NBC thinks it's his strong suit, but during the early going, his delivery seemed forced, sapping the humor out of his material. If a joke didn't go well, he'd repeat the punch line for the benefit of those who didn't get it. Or he'd walk out on stage, playing the air guitar along with the band. Again, this "signature" - a rock-and-roll counterpart to Johnny Carson's golf swing - was forced. Well, he's lost the guitar, and he hardly ever steps on his punch lines anymore. What we see these days is a more relaxed Leno, and consequently, a funnier one.
3. Will Arsenio Hall fade into the night? Now here's a man with real problems. It's not enough that Hall's ratings are way down from their peak 2 1/2 years ago, but he's facing the toughest competition in his five-year talk show career - and it only gets worse. Forty-one CBS stations are expected to move his show from 11, or 11:30, back to midnight or beyond. This, of course, is tantamount to pushing it off the ratings cliff. Also, at least 75 Fox stations will push the show back to make room for Chevy Chase. All in all, more than half of Hall's 214 stations will "downgrade" the show. Now if you don't think that will make his numbers dip even further, then we've got a nice bridge to sell you. Hall has tried to broaden the appeal of the show (less political humor, for example). On the bright side: Advertisers still think he's got solid demographics. And on the very bright side: Some think Hall might even thrive as a late-late-night talk-show host; after all, it didn't hurt Letterman all those years.
4. What is CBS' next move at 12:35 now that Garry Shandling has opted to stay with HBO?
CBS offered Shandling an estimated 20 million big ones over four years, and still the guy chose to stay with HBO's "Larry Sanders Show"! (Where he'll no doubt earn more.) This was certainly a blow to CBS, but hardly a major one. The network has got its hands full launching an 11:35 show at this point. Nevertheless, CBS will soon have to start shopping around for a 12:35 candidate. So who might the winner in the next big Late Night Sweepstakes be? Dennis Miller? Rejected by viewers before, but then Letterman once was too. Dana Carvey? Wants the big screen, not the small. Or how about? . . . (You fill in a name; send to Howard Stringer, president, CBS, 52 W. 52nd St., New York, N.Y.)
5. What can the world expect from Conan O'Brien?
First of all, absolutely no carrot jokes. When you're 6-foot-4, pole-skinny and topped with a shock of bright-orange hair, you get sensitive about those kinds of things. Really, there's not much else we know about O'Brien or his show, which bows Sept. 13 on NBC, except that it will be guided by the savvy hand of Lorne Michaels. But there are clues. He has gone to some improv companies around the country - Second City in Chicago and the Groundlings in L.A. - for hires. So it is likely that his program will deviate from the typical talk-show format of host / sidekick / band / guests. There will likely be skits, a la "Saturday Night Live"; he already has taped some on the streets of Manhattan. And O'Brien wants writer / performers for the show; his predilection for scribes stems from the fact that he once was one, but he also may want to take some of the spotlight off himself. Oh, yes, and there will be a monologue and guests - O'Brien's not that radical - and one or two musical guests per week.
6. Does Chevy Chase really have a chance?
Again, conventional wisdom has it that Chase has the same chance of winning the late-night wars as the Mets do of overtaking the Phillies by Oct. 1. Why? Partly because there are so many unknowns: Does Chase have the talent or motivation to ham it up with guests each night? Does he really want to work this hard (and, yes, it is hard work), and why doesn't he want to stay in the movies, where the money is much, much better? Fox has forced affiliates to air the show (which debuts Sept. 7) at 11, giving it a head start over its competitors. Fox could discover a couple of things: Viewers really do want an alternative like this to their late local news, or, viewers do not. What else do we know? The bandleader is saxophonist Tom Scott; there will be a "news update," similar to Chase's "SNL" skit. There probably will be a "cold open" - also like "SNL" - that will likely feature a comic sketch each night. This could replace the monologue: Unlike Leno, Chase doesn't consider himself a stand-up.
7. Could Johnny Carson make a comeback?
No, Carson isn't jumping back into the fray, but what if his shows returned? In a deal he made with NBC years ago, Carson retained ownership of shows made by Carson Productions, while NBC retained ownership of the "Tonight" franchise. His nephew, Jeff Sotzing, is stringing together classic episodes of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" from the '70s and '80s (the shows from the early '60s were destroyed in a warehouse fire). The shows would then be syndicated, possibly for late-night slots. Wouldn't it be a hoot if Carson thus ended up trouncing the whippersnappers who have aspired to his throne?
8. How does Ted Koppel fit into this mess?
This unfunny fellow could be the real beneficiary of the late-night shoot-out. He has so far. In June, for example, "Nightline" got an average 5 rating, compared to a 4.4 rating for "Tonight." An aberration? Quite the contrary: Since the beginning of the season through Aug. 1, the show had a 5.2 rating and a 15 share, while "Tonight" had a 4.6 rating and a 14 share. ABC has done some things to beef up the show's performance. First, it induced many stations to improve live clearances. About 60 percent of ABC's affiliates had been clearing it live at 11:35, but that has grown to 68 percent. Koppel also has gotten away from the rigid satellite-interview format. He still does in-studio interviews many nights but also gets out on the road more often. Some programs are mini-documentaries - investigations, profiles and reports filed by non-"Nightline" regulars. (Friday night shows will be devoted entirely to non-interview formats).
9. Does ABC have a hankering to add another late show?
This is an easy one: Absolutely not. ABC has been burned a couple of times with some misfires (Rick Dees, for example). More important, affiliates have absolutely no desire for a post-"Nightline" program. Most air reruns, old movies and just about anything else you might imagine. And most make money doing it. So why give up the time period?
10. And so, who will the winner be?
Easy question, tricky answer. It is complicated because each network's expectations for its respective show is different. NBC will think it has won if it maintains status quo, or slightly below that - say a 4.5 to a 5 rating. CBS will be perfectly happy if Letterman does less than this - as long as he nabs the 18to 49-year-old viewers that advertisers covet. Fox isn't thinking blow-out either. A 2 rating? They'll take it, although affiliates may not be too happy with that number. Hall? His numbers will drop, but he should give O'Brien a real fight. And what about NBC's newcomer? Very unlikely he'll get much over a 2 rating - at first. Because viewers looking for late-night entertainment will have many choices, the margin of victory for anyone will be slim. But the next king of late-night just might be a guy named Ted.