Letterman, Leno Go Late-Night Waltzing

LAST time I looked, the David Letterman bidding war was still raging. At least two networks were vying for NBC's sassy and popular talk-show host: his own network and CBS. They've been playing a corporate game of checkers, one that illustrates how desperately today's producers crave the special talents Letterman brings to the strange, hybrid format of late-night TV.

Letterman has made a big hit, of course, in his current time period following "Tonight" - 12:35 to 1:35 a.m. in many regions. But that's a little too deep in the evening for his liking. Letterman wants to be on from 11:35 p.m. to 12:35 a.m., the heart of post-prime-time TV - late enough to be nightclubish and slightly unguarded in feel, early enough to be mainstream and big time.

So in December, CBS tried to lure Letterman by dangling that earlier time slot in front of him - along with much more money than he's now getting on NBC. It looked very much like an offer he could not refuse.

Or could he? NBC wants to keep him - either in his present late-late position or earlier. But "earlier" spells trouble, because on NBC that means "The Tonight Show," and it's already being hosted by the newly ensconced and highly capable Jay Leno, who's doing fine in the ratings. If NBC tries to shuffle Leno around, he says he'll walk.

The very fact that NBC might even consider dropping Leno from "Tonight" - in an effort to keep Letterman - is a sign that the network, currently at the bottom of the network ratings ladder, is more than little nervous about the prospect of losing one of its historic areas of dominance. Through "Tonight," NBC's success in that time period has become a vested interest, a profit center in which any change promises a multimillion-dollar fallout in other parts of TV.

If Letterman went to CBS, for instance, and Leno stayed on NBC, the twin threat might hurt Arsenio Hall's syndicated talk show - already dropping in ratings - which airs at the same time. Oddly enough, the effect on ABC's "Nightline," the figuring goes, might be positive, because that popular Ted Koppel program offers an entirely different alternative to viewers.

But network number-crunchers tend to feel it's hard to tell just how the acerbic Letterman would do if he aired earlier, when the viewer profile is a little more middle-of-the-road, a little less open to wild antics. Host Leno, on the other hand, is a powerful comedian with a style less likely to scare people than Letterman, whose brilliance, though carefully calculated, has a loony, manic edge to it.

Why, then, is everyone so anxious to get Letterman? Partly because he offers the unpredictability and under-produced style typical of late-night TV's original character. It's not just that Letterman seems spontaneous. He appears unmanageable. He makes you feel he could do anything, that he's not wholly the captive of management guidelines and manicured formats - although in reality he well may be.

That's what his crazy routines are all about, when he charges offstage into hallways, turns cameras on off-the-set events, or calls someone on the phone just to see what happens. Such acts are comic rituals of independence. You keep thinking something unexpected will occur on his show.

But you can't get that kind of chemistry in a straightjacket, which "Tonight" has become. There was a time when "Tonight" did have an improvisational and experimental tone. It wasn't really "packaged" at all in the way it is today. It was loose-jointed, and aired live, which meant you always had the titillating prospect of unprogrammed reality to infuse the format with life.

A lot of that missing element can now be found on Letterman's show - somewhat the way Off Broadway took on the creative zest that once characterized Broadway. But if Letterman goes to "Tonight," could he maintain the sharp edge that 12:30 a.m. now allows him? Or would he have to give up his freewheeling style, allowing creative petrification to set in, brought on by the locked-in format of the ponderous corporate asset that "Tonight" has become?

The show would be worth watching - for a time at least - just to find out.

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