CBS to push affils for Letterman

CBS/Broadcasting Group president Howard Stringer, while stressing that the deal to land David Letterman is “still a big if,” said yesterday that the network will pull out all the stops to get affiliates to air a possible Letterman show “live” at 11:30 p.m.

“We’re going to have to do a lot of sweet talking, and some tough talking,” Stringer told TV critics assembled in Santa Monica. “I don’t intend to roll over and play dead on this.”

Not surprisingly, the proffered CBS-Letterman deal dominated the session with Stringer, who delineated his 18-month quest to woo first Letterman’s producers and then the host himself.

Questioned repeatedly about late night, Stringer said that NBC faced a tough decision regarding Letterman and Jay Leno and that “I empathize with them … (but) not a lot.” He indicated that NBC would have to match the financial terms of CBS’ offer (reportedly in excess of $ 14 million a year) but not necessarily Letterman’s demands for an earlier time slot, although the question may be moot, since HUT (homes using TV) levels at the later hour probably aren’t sufficient to make such a salary viable.

During fourth-quarter ’92, for example, “The Tonight Show” averaged a 4.7 rating, 14 share in Nielsen, while the average ratings for “Late Night” (2.7/13) were 43% lower, despite a decline of only one share point.

Stringer said there had been no contact with Jay Leno regarding a move to CBS (in the unlikely event NBC were to give Letterman his “Tonight Show” slot) and that Letterman would have the option of moving a CBS show from New York to Los Angeles.

He added that comments by CBS Entertainment prez Jeff Sagansky — who said Monday he was “very confident” his web would get Letterman — shouldn’t lead journalists to believe the deal was done. If Letterman ends up staying at NBC, Sagansky is “going to be very embarrassed,” Stringer quipped.

NBC has until Friday to get back to Letterman on whether it will match CBS’ offer. The assumption is that Letterman will leave and that NBC is casting around for a replacement to follow “Tonight,” either by moving up “Later With Bob Costas” (which celebrates its fifth anniversary with a prime time spec Jan. 30) and/or developing a new entertainment/talk format for the hour.

NBC has scheduled the executive session at its leg of the critics tour with entertainment prez Warren Littlefield for tomorrow.

Stringer suggested that it’s in the long-term interests of its affils to have Letterman and reiterated Sagansky’s contention that the web could be close to 100% live clearances, although a number of its stations currently preempt or delay CBS late night for syndicated fare.

Turning with some apparent relief to other areas, Stringer said CBS has “no excuse not to be patient” with struggling quality series like “Brooklyn Bridge” now that it’s the top-rated network. The show is on hiatus but will return in a protected time period, he said.

He also noted that the web, heading into the last year of its exclusive baseball contract, still has an interest in major sports packages but is “determined not to lose money” on them in the future.

The former news division prez said the web would up its number of prime time documentaries in addition to existing news magazines. CBS News officials revealed planned docus on Vietnam and the JFK assassination for later this year.

Stringer began by pointing out that 10 of 22 regularly scheduled prime time series on CBS were created or produced by women, responding to questions — spurred by Fox Broadcasting Co.’s appointment of Lucie Salhany — about the status of female exex at the nets.

Saying Salhany is a close friend, Stringer couldn’t resist a dig at Fox when the subject of the weblet adhering to web standards on curbing violence came up. “Fox has regular standards and practices?” he asked.

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