The Top 10 Reasons Letterman Could Be Wrong For Cbs

Howard Stringer has made a New Year's resolution: no more predictions about David Letterman. But the president of CBS Broadcast Group can't resist a chuckle. Stringer spent months wooing NBC's restless talk show host to come to CBS. Now, as a Jan. 15 deadline looms, NBC is casting about for ways to match his munificent offer. And Stringer is enjoying his rival's discomfort: "It's a wonderful chess game in which any move they make risks losing their queen."

Perhaps. But not everybody thinks Stringer has checkmated NBC. Some media buyers and TV executives contend that CBS' $28 million, two-year offer to Letterman is an Olympian gamble. They wonder how much of his young audience will follow him from the home of Saturday Night Live to the network of Major Dad. And they worry that CBS won't be able to persuade enough of its affiliates to carry his show at 11:35 p.m., opposite the Tonight show with Jay Leno.

ENOUGH CHITCHAT. Nor is anyone counting out NBC. Letterman has made no secret of craving Leno's time slot. But the network is brainstorming for other ways to keep both stars. It could leave Leno in place while offering Letterman a series of prime-time specials in addition to his regular show. Or it could offer Leno a shot at prime time. Executives close to the talks say NBC President Robert C. Wright may try to strike such a compromise before Jan. 15.

One reason for Letterman to think before he leaps: Late-night TV has gotten far tougher in the days since he played cleanup hitter to Johnny Carson. NBC still makes $70 million to $100 million a year from Leno and Letterman. But where NBC used to dominate the talk show circuit, it now competes with a gaggle of chatfests (table). With more on the way, sponsors will be able to demand lower ad rates: "CBS could take a bath initially," says Grant Tinker, former chairman of NBC.

Some media experts think if NBC must choose, it would be better off with Leno. In head-to-head competition with Letterman, Leno's easygoing style may attract a broader audience. Tonight's ratings are 13% lower than Carson's numbers in the same period last year. But they have rebounded recently, despite NBC's general ratings collapse. Leno has "a charming, boyish image that plays well in the 11:35 time period," says Gene DeWitt, head of buying firm DeWitt Media. By contrast, "Letterman's schtick is appealing to a relatively small group of fans."

The bad news for CBS is that its own viewers may not be among them. Letterman's fans tend to be college kids or twentysomethings, while CBS viewers are the oldest of all the networks. Letterman's cynical sensibility also plays best in major markets, while many of the strongest CBS stations are in rural areas. "Does he fit at CBS? The answer right now is 'no,' " says Jim Waterbury, chairman of NBC's affiliate board.

To succeed, Stringer must also persuade about 30% of CBS affiliates to drop syndicated programs such as Cheers or Arsenio, which currently air at 11:35. Some of the stations are locked into multiyear contracts, and many of the shows are popular. "We would tamper with audience loyalties only gingerly," says Alan Bell, president of the broadcast group at Freedom Newspapers Inc., which owns four CBS affiliates. Stringer plans to offer incentives such as extra network compensation to persuade affiliates to carry Letterman. And he insists Letterman would broaden his audience with an earlier time slot on CBS.

SHRINKING PIE. But Letterman can do little about the growing competition. Comedian Chevy Chase is readying a new talk show for Fox Broadcasting Co., while Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey may develop a show at NBC if Letterman bolts. And all of these programs are fighting for a shrinking pie: Overall late-night viewership declined 3% in the recent November sweeps period compared to last year. Only hawkish commentator Rush Limbaugh and Nightline's Ted Koppel gained viewers.

Few observers fault Stringer for pursuing Letterman. His mere presence could revitalize CBS' moribund late-night schedule. But Stringer knows that Letterman had better be a bona fide hit. Failing at $14 million a year is one Stupid Human Trick that's sure to bomb.