Stringer: Delivering Letterman

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Sir Howard Stringer, chairman and CEO of Sony Corp. of America since 1998 and a British knight since 1999, spent the first 30 years of his career at CBS.
From 1976 to 1981 Mr. Stringer was executive producer of “CBS Reports,” the much-honored documentary unit; from 1986 to 1988, during a period of painful cost-cutting, he was president of CBS News; and from 1988 to 1995, he was president of CBS. In 1993, after the easily satirized missteps and comically tortuous negotiations that were chronicled in the best-selling “The Late Shift,” by Bill Carter, Mr. Stringer’s self-described crusade to bring David Letterman from NBC to the Eye Network paid off.
Electronic Media: Here’s your chance to correct the record: Anything in `The Late Shift’ you want to take issue with?
Howard Stringer: The man who played me [in the HBO movie] was too short.
When I read the details of the desperate attempts we made to lure David Letterman to the network, I cringe. … We probably didn’t need any of that. Because in the end, intelligence was his motivating factor.
EM: How so? And what was your motivating factor in pursuing him?
Mr. Stringer: Even in the greatest days of the so-called Tiffany Network, when we were No. 1 in daytime, No. 1 in evening news, No. 1 in prime time, the bookends never worked. The morning news has had more anchors than the U.S. Navy, and [in late-night] we were … never able to dent Johnny Carson. So in retrospect, going after David Letterman was still … the best thing I could have done. … For me, even though the word `Tiffany’ doesn’t get used in this day and age, given the competition, he himself, his guiding intelligence on that show, is what gives the network its sheen and brands it, in a way connects it to the days of `M*A*S*H’ and `Mary Tyler Moore.’
EM: Had you met David before you first offered him a show at CBS?
Mr. Stringer: I had met him twice. Once in a softball game at Yankee Stadium, where he tagged me out, and once I tracked him down to one of those award lunches. … I ambushed him somewhat on the way out the door.
EM: Why David?
Mr. Stringer: I grew up in the United Kingdom. … The tradition [of university-educated humor], of the well-educated, smart comedian, as opposed to the blue-collar stand-up, was very familiar. … That’s why he was so effective after Sept. 11. We’re not talking about someone who does one-liners, we’re talking about someone who thinks.
EM: Was there any time during the negotiations when you thought you’d lost him?
Mr. Stringer: Oh, lots of times! As a matter of fact, I had a sort of run-in with my friend Jeff Sagansky [currently president and CEO of Pax TV, who was then president of CBS Entertainment] because as we were closing on the deal, we were at an affiliates’ event and he let it slip to a bunch of people that we’ve got Dave. I was terrified-terrified-that NBC would see that in print somewhere and reverse, because they always had the last shot [at matching the deal].
For 24 hours I was an absolute basket case. I remember standing at some phone somewhere and saying to Jeff, `No, no, you can’t do that!’
EM: It was your personal idea to get David?
Mr. Stringer: Yes, yes, it was my crusade, but a lot of people shared it. And to put him in the Ed Sullivan Theater. …
When I came to this country, CBS was the only network that I had any idea of, because of Ed Murrow and Jack Benny and Burns & Allen and Phil Silvers. So a sentimental relationship to the history of the industry made David Letterman’s arrival at CBS so utterly compelling to me.
And the Ed Sullivan Theater! My first job at CBS in ’65 was answering viewers’ phone calls after `The Ed Sullivan Show,’ and I would take people [who] were yelling at me whether they liked Barbra Streisand or didn’t like Barbra Streisand, or whether they liked the Beatles or didn’t like the Beatles. So `The Ed Sullivan Show,’ which I watched every Sunday, waiting for phone calls, was another kind of connection which I felt was absolutely appropriate, and I was delighted.
A lot of people thought this was a rather silly idea, but David understood that theater. And that place was sort of a link to something we both believed in.
EM: The obvious name at this point is Larry Tisch, then the chairman of CBS and of Loews Corp. Is it true, as EM columnist Tom Shales once reported, that you called David before the premiere of the CBS show to ask whether Mr. Tisch could sit in the audience, and David said no?
Mr. Stringer: Yes. … I don’t think I was allowed to sit in the first-night audience either, because David has this strong feeling that the audience ought to be real. … [In fact] I never ever sat in the audience of the Letterman show.
EM: What did Mr. Tisch say?
Mr. Stringer: He didn’t mind. … Larry is not pretentious. You don’t have to treat him like a demigod.
EM: Mr. Tisch is known for being tight with a dollar. Did he balk at the price for Dave?
Mr. Stringer: Listen, we’d overpaid for baseball by $300 million…. I never had concerns.
EM: What were some of the low points?
Mr. Stringer: I had one major low point and that was being sued by General Westmoreland. [Gen. William Westmoreland, who headed U.S. forces in Vietnam, sued CBS, claiming he was libeled in a `CBS Reports’ Vietnam documentary. The case, in which Mr. Stringer and correspondent Mike Wallace were among the defendants, was eventually settled out of court.] That was the longest year of my career. …
That was so easily the low point. And then later on when I was News president doing layoffs and so forth, that was a pretty miserable experience.
EM: When the foreign bureaus were closed?
Mr. Stringer: Some of them. I didn’t close all of them. But yeah, that was a tough time.
EM: What were some of the high points of your CBS career?
Mr. Stringer: I think taking Dan Rather into first place by the margin that we did. …
The five-hour `Defense of the United States’ documentary series that we did … all of which won their time periods …
Doing `48 Hours on Crack Street,’ which began the `48 Hours’ series …
Some of the Bill Moyers documentaries. … I remember every documentary that I ever worked on.