AND THE WINNER IS…”Nightline.”

Yes, “Nightline,” the most overlooked party in the David Letterman-to-CBS soap opera, played out last week in the media with a fury usually seen only in U.S. military strikes against Third World countries and about as much suspense as one of those actions.

To hear Letterman and NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield tell it at separate press conferences last week, the die was essentially cast 19 months ago, when NBC made the decision to give “The Tonight Show” to Jay Leno instead of Letterman.

The decision, at the time, seemed a sound one and was defended in several quarters, including here, on the grounds that the more vanilla-flavored Leno had proven his worth as a guest host for Carson and that Letterman’s reach might not be quite as broad. It was also reasoned that moving Letterman to 11:30 and gambling on a new show in the “Late Night” slot risked halving the web’s formidable late night lineup.

Littlefield and Carson made a point of lauding Letterman at the time Leno was named the latter’s successor, and Letterman himself issued a tongue-in-cheek statement saying, “I couldn’t be happier for Jay. I know he’ll do a great job. Who’s going to take care of Doc?”

Still, there were also reports back then that Letterman was already fuming over the decision as well as the manner in which it was handled. Whatever indignities NBC may have heaped upon him in announcing Leno, however, Letterman now says he was simply hell-bent to move into the “Tonight Show” time period and would have settled for nothing less.

So for all the wrangling and foolishness on NBC’s part by debating the merits of each host and failing to firmly back Leno, the question after June 1991 was really where Letterman would go and how soon he would get there.

Those facts make the frenzy surrounding the story somewhat puzzling even to those caught up in covering it, particularly when one takes into account that the average nightly rating for “The Tonight Show,””Late Night” and “The Arsenio Hall Show” combined wouldn’t surpass that of “Doogie Howser, M.D.” or any other average prime time performer.

WHY THE LETTERMAN DERBY BLOSSOMED into such an astounding media event, in retrospect, can be attributed to the following factors: The enormous money involved, the general fascination with such personalities, Letterman’s own popularity among the press–who herald him as one of TV’s few geniuses–and, perhaps foremost, the sex appeal of conflict created by Letterman’s demand for Leno’s chair. About the only wrinkle that might have generated more interest would be if one of the hosts had enlisted a teenage lover to shoot the other one.

Leno has been gracious throughout his “Tonight” tenure–indeed, perhaps a bit too willing to extend his prominent jaw. When Arsenio Hall grabbed headlines by saying he would “kick Leno’s ass,” Leno tried to stay above the fray. After Dennis Miller complained that “Tonight” contributed to his show’s cancellation, Leno opted not to respond, other than to say viewers “won’t see me going on ‘Live With Regis & Kathie Lee’ whining” if he fails.

When Leno’s manager and exec producer, Helen Kushnick, was ousted after employing hardball booking tactics that insiders maintained Leno was barely or not at all aware of, he took the blame, telling an industry gathering last October, “Everything that happens on the show is my fault … and that’s the way it will be from this point on.”

It’s not as if NBC was testing an unknown commodity when it gave “The Tonight Show” to Leno. He had been the exclusive guest host since September 1987 and had performed respectably during that period, just as he has since Carson’s much-ballyhooed exit.

Is Leno as talented in making the show work “from the desk”– regardless of who’s in the guest seat–as Letterman? No. Does “Tonight” boast as many brilliant, challenging elements as “Late Night?” No. Still, Leno is a gifted stand-up comic and an inoffensive talent, which can hardly be said of Letterman. Just ask Cher.

All of which brings us back, belatedly, to “Nightline,” the third wheel in the network late night story. With Letterman likely to shave some viewers off “Tonight,” and Letterman’s own audience probably to fall somewhere in the same range, wouldn’t it be logical for the ABC news program to emerge as the daypart leader and the primary alternative to entertainment/talk?

Add in “Arsenio” plus Fox Broadcasting Co.’s “The Chevy Chase Show” and “Nightline” (which may also benefit from an ABC push to increase its live clearances) will be the one late night series not caught up in a struggle over which rock groups and comedians to book.

Many stories following confirmation of the CBS-Letterman deal made no reference to “Nightline,” which, like “Late Night,” remains one of the best reasons to watch TV. No matter where one’s sympathies lie, perhaps the most telling comment on the late night scene come fall is that it will be all talk–a rather fitting coda to the whole Letterman circus.

AS A SERVICE TO PUBLICISTS pitching trend stories, here’s an informal listing of the top five topics on the minds of out-of-town writers during the just-completed TV Critics Assn. tour:

1. Letterman and late night. (Even Orson Bean, during a session on “Dr. Quinn , Medicine Woman,” got a question about it.)

2. Amy Fisher, and the decline of the TV movie form due to the pursuit of true-crime stories.

3. The fate of critically acclaimed but low-rated series like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Brooklyn Bridge.”

4. The saturation of TV newsmagazines, based on the addition of ABC and CBS news hours later this year.

5. The status of women as network executives, spurred by Lucie Salhany being named chairman of Fox Broadcasting Co. The lowlight there came when Salhany was asked if Fox would now have a sensibility “more like Lifetime.” We can see the promos now: “Next, ‘Married … With Children,’ followed by ‘Your Baby & Child’…”

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