David Letterman’s retirement from CBS next year may open the door for a woman to take over one of TV’s iconic late-night talk shows for the first time.
Ellen DeGeneres would be an ideal choice, according to Mary Murphy, a senior lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would be good candidates, too, former NBC chief Bob Wright said yesterday on Bloomberg TV.
Letterman’s exit and the naming of a successor will complete a generational shift in late-night TV and give CBS the opportunity to make even bigger changes if the network is willing to gamble. It’s been more than 30 years since Joan Rivers became Johnny Carson’s regular guest host. Her efforts to start a competing show on Fox in the late 1980s faltered.
“The bold move is choosing a woman,” said Murphy, a former news producer on “Entertainment Tonight,” a syndicated show. “You put Tina, Amy, or Ellen in that position and it would be extraordinary. It’s an era where people are saying, ‘Not just one more guy sitting behind a desk.’”
With CBS Corp.’s entertainment division led by a woman, Nina Tassler, there’s a greater likelihood the network will consider a female comedian, Murphy said.
“They are going to have to think very, very carefully,” Murphy said. “It would have to be a woman who could be risky but not cross the line for a mass audience.”
Letterman, 66, announced his retirement at the taping of his show this week in New York. He has been host of “The Late Show With David Letterman” on New York-based CBS since 1993. “Late Night With David Letterman” ran on NBC starting in 1982.
Together, the two series will add up to 33 years and make Letterman the longest-serving host in late-night TV, exceeding Johnny Carson’s 30 years at “The Tonight Show” on NBC.
“He is such a figure in the industry,” said Wright, who ran NBC for 20 years. “It is not going to be simple to pick a replacement.”
“The Tonight Show” remains the ratings leader and has averaged 5.21 million viewers a night since Fallon took over in February, according to Nielsen data posted at TVbythenumbers.com. That’s about double the audience for Letterman and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
DeGeneres, 56, a two-time Oscars host, is a popular syndicated daytime talk-show personality. “Ellen” drew 3.6 million viewers a day in the week ended March 16, according to Nielsen. She helped attract 43 million viewers to the Academy Awards telecast last month.
Poehler, 42, and Fey, 43, are successful graduates of “Saturday Night Live” and have produced their own prime-time series for NBC, “Parks & Recreation” and “30 Rock.” They have also co-hosted the annual Golden Globes Awards twice.
“Tina is an extremely big-time media person, writer, producer, performer,” said Wright. “I don’t know that she would want that grind.”
Cara Tripicchio, a publicist for Fey, didn’t return messages seeking comment. Neither did Lewis Kay, a spokesman for Poehler, nor ICM Partners, which represents DeGeneres. Chris Ender, a spokesman for CBS, declined to comment on succession plans.
For a candidate to be successful in late night, talent and work ethic will be more important than gender, said Rick Ludwin, former head of NBC’s late night programming, who cited Chelsea Handler, host of a show on the E! Network, as someone who’s been successful in that line of work.
“When you promise the audience that comedy is a big part of the equation and that you will deliver that five nights a week, even the most experienced, talented people don’t realize how much work that is,” Ludwin said in a telephone interview. “Johnny and Dave and Jay made it look easy. It’s very difficult and it’s relentless.”
Letterman informed CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves of his decision this week. Moonves had said previously his late-night host could stay as long as he wanted.
“I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring,’” said Letterman, adding “we don’t have a timetable for this precisely.”
In more than 6,000 episodes, Letterman became known for off-beat comedy such as his top-10 lists and stupid pet tricks. Leno, who often left the studio for his Jay-walking man-on-the-street skits, positioned himself as an everyman comic. ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel joined the competition for 11:30 p.m. audiences in January 2013.
“Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events,” Moonves said in an e-mailed statement. “He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes -– including me.”
Letterman’s show was also a business for the comedian. His company, Worldwide Pants Inc., produces “The Late Show,” as well as the “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.”
“He makes an enormous amount of money,” Wright said. “People have no idea how much David makes from that show. Maybe that is not an issue with him anymore.”
CBS, owner of the most-watched TV network, fell 1.7 percent to $61.56 yesterday in New York. The shares have declined 3.4 percent this year.
“These transitions are too hard to do for every few years,” Ludwin said. “You hopefully want someone in the chair who will stay in that role for five, 10 or 20 years.”
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