In 1980, the president of NBC, Fred Silverman, chose to get into a high-stakes poker game with the network’s one genuine superstar, Johnny Carson. As usual, Mr. Carson held the unbeatable trump card, and he walked off with all the chips.
Has anyone else noticed an eerie parallel between that Carson-Silverman feud and the current tempest involving CBS President Les Moonves and his top late-night performer, David Letterman?
Consider: In 1980, Mr. Carson was 55 years old and at the zenith of his broadcasting power. “The Tonight Show” raked in tens of millions in profit annually for NBC, which was not exactly reliving its glory days under Mr. Silverman. A contract dispute with Mr. Carson was a situation NBC could ill afford-and it wound up costing the network spectacularly.
Tired of Mr. Silverman’s hardball, Mr. Carson threatened, quite publicly, to leave television. The capitulation that followed was swift and complete: Mr. Silverman signed Mr. Carson to a whopping $5 million salary; gave him ownership of “The Tonight Show”; cut the show’s running time from 90 minutes to 60; and awarded him the franchise that would eventually follow his at 12:30 a.m., with a host to be determined.
Twenty-one years later, that host, David Letterman, finds himself in the final year of a contract extension he signed with Mr. Moonves in 1996. Mr. Letterman, who turns 54 next month, has spent the duration of that time in Jay Leno’s shadow. He fell behind Mr. Leno in the ratings that summer and has stayed a distant second ever since.
Yet in another sense, David Letterman stands in no one’s shadow, save for the mighty Carson. While recovering from heart surgery last year, he had an epiphany. He discovered that America missed him, needed him to bring closure to their day, pined for his zany gags, his Bubba jokes, his Top Tens.
Mr. Letterman got the message. He went out and had a great year in 2000. Ratings went up. Above all, he seemed to be having fun doing a show again.
Through it all, Mr. Moonves appeared to be cheering from the sidelines. But no sooner did Mr. Letterman’s surgery scars start to fade than fresh wounds surfaced between star and network. A dispute over who would pay $1 million a year to maintain the Ed Sullivan Theater-CBS or Dave-briefly made the news. Dr. Pepper, a big spender on CBS sportscasts, complained loudly after Mr. Letterman referred to their product on his show as “liquid manure.”
But the real acrimony flared up last month after Mr. Moonves paid a visit to Fidel Castro. A steady stream of Les-and-Fidel jokes ensued on “The Late Show.” Yet even to my jaded ears, they sounded vicious. The high-water mark was a sketch that imagined Mr. Moonves and Mr. Castro bragging about the atrocities each had committed. (For El Presidente of CBS, that meant “Bette”).
The result was an extraordinary 90-minute meeting that took place Feb. 27 in Mr. Letterman’s office. Mr. Moonves had taken enough ribbing. He was also tired of seeing his smash hit, “Survivor,” belittled week after week on his own network. (“Survivor” contestants appear on Mr. Letterman’s show but must stand over by producer Maria Pope, safely away from the host.)
In that meeting, Mr. Moonves allegedly spoke the words that have since been repeated countless times on CBS by a pissed-off Mr. Letterman: “You got a problem with me?”
For two days afterward, Dave rambled on at length about some vague unpleasantness he’d just been put through. Then he began dropping details on the air, picking at them like sores.
“I’m 53 years old,” groused Mr. Letterman to his bandleader, Paul Shaffer. “I don’t need any more meetings.”
Finally, he read a Top Ten list, “Things Overheard at a Meeting With Les Moonves.” It reminded old-time fans of the time when Dave “announced” that NBC executive John Agoglia had been named “GE Employee of the Month.”
Then Mr. Letterman took a week’s vacation. Yet no sooner did he step back on stage than his anger surfaced again. He asked Mr. Shaffer whether he knew what the difference between Dave Letterman and Oprah Winfrey was. Mr. Shaffer didn’t know.
“Nobody pushes Oprah around!” Dave barked at the camera.
Mr. Letterman is still putting out terrific shows, while keeping up his one-man campaign.
Mr. Moonves downplayed the meeting to reporters. The CBS chief said he was just concerned that viewers didn’t know who he was, much less care about a trip he took to Cuba. Speaking for Mr. Letterman, a “Late Show” producer said, “We make jokes of everybody, and network executives have no immunity from that.”
So with Mr. Letterman unsigned and unhappy, Mr. Moonves has a lot more to worry about than a writers strike (though you can bet that Dave will not come out of hibernation to do strike shows, as he did in 1988).
After all, Mr. Letterman may not wield the clout Mr. Carson did 21 years ago. But in today’s shrunken network environment, the “Late Show” and “Late Late Show,” which are both owned by Mr. Letterman’s company, are a dependable source of profit and young viewership for CBS.
Would Dave pull a Johnny and threaten to quit? I actually think he would. He knows he’s a legend. He has nothing more to prove. No doubt he pines to be No. 1 in the ratings again, but has resigned himself to second place so long as he’s at CBS.
So then the question becomes: Can this marriage be saved? Of course. But both men will have to come to an understanding.
What Mr. Moonves needs to understand is that Mr. Letterman will not let up. Ever. He should recall that the first celebrity to grace the CBS “Late Show” in 1993 was NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. He appeared onstage just long enough to claim a couple of Dave’s cue cards and stomp off, declaring “These jokes are the intellectual property of NBC!” (General Electric had threatened to sue Mr. Letterman if he tried bringing any of his material over to CBS.)
The business may have weeded out all of its true characters, but Mr. Moonves is celebrity-friendly and reasonably affable. Also, his steady hand was invaluable in making “Everybody Loves Raymond,” a comedy produced by Mr. Letterman, into a hit.
And say this for the guy: He speaks his mind. Sometimes he even speaks his mind on the record. And when he “had a problem” with Mr. Letterman, he showed up, unannounced, on the 12th floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater to hash it out. Dave has to respect that, and he’s a fool if he doesn’t.
Still, if I may borrow an old adage from my own industry: Mr. Moonves, don’t pick a fight with someone who buys his ink by the barrel.
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in EM. He covers television for the Kansas City Star, and his Web site (www.tvbarn.com) covers TV topics daily.