Letterman at loose ends as Leno boosts lead

CBS, Dave scratch heads over demo desertion

Just two nights before his fall season premiere, CBS latenight host David Letterman awoke to find a bear in the kitchen of his Montana ranch. After bingeing on chocolate cake and peaches, the 300-pound intruder lumbered into a bedroom for a late summer’s snooze.

No matter what Letterman and his ranch manager tried, they couldn’t get the animal to leave. So they asked a local teenager to come over and set off some M-80 firecrackers. (It worked.)

A month now into the 2003-2004 TV season, Letterman’s show itself could use a youthful hero bearing firepower. “TheLate Show with David Letterman” has suffered its worst fall opener in five years, with a very noticeable decline in young male viewers.

For the first three weeks of the new season, Letterman was down a whopping 33% in men 18-34, compared to the same frame last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In the all-important demo adults 18-49, Letterman was down 12%; in total viewers, he was down 5%. Some believe the baseball playoffs have hurt Letterman, but that’s only a sliver of the story.

Confounded CBS execs say they are stumped as to Letterman’s ratings decompression and wonder whether the same unexplainable and sudden disappearance of adult males 18-34 across the primetime sked has seeped into latenight.

Even NBC’s latenight host Jay Leno was down 6% in men 18-34 for the first three weeks of the season, but overall, “The Tonight Show” was able to post growth and widen its eight-year lead over “Late Show. Leno was up 5% in adults 18-49 and 3% in total viewers, compared to the same period last year. He was down 6% in men 18-34.

NBC head of latenight Rick Ludwin adds that Leno’s close proximity to the crazed California gubernatorial race helped pump up the show’s nubmers.

Still, TV critics say Leno will never catch Letterman when it comes to sophistication and interview skills. Leno is the McDonald’s; Letterman, the Algonquin.

“The ratings are an unsolved mystery, but we still think we have the best show and the best host in latenight. David Letterman is a major source of prestige, pride and profits for CBS,” says Eye spokesman Chris Ender.

And Letterman still commands top dollar on Madison Ave. The gap between Letterman and Leno in ad rates is far narrower than the gap between the ratings.

“I would think this is a very profitable program for CBS,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television, a station rep firm.

Part of Letterman’s audience erosion could be the flight of young adults to more youthful latenight hosts, such as Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” on Comedy Central or ABC’s relatively frosh “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which is up substantially.

Also driving the Eye and “Late Show” exec producer Rob Burnett nuts is the growing disparity between Nielsen’s overnight rating for top metered markets — which show Letterman up from last year — and the national numbers.

“We’ve never seen the translation between the overnight ratings and the national ratings so out of whack,” says Burnett, whose Worldwide Pants shingle produces “Late Show.”

Another reason why CBS –the No. 1 net in overall viewers — is irked by the season opening numbers is that the net is finally making gains in the 10 p.m. ET frame — “CSI Miami” on Monday, the frosh “Without a Trace” on Thursday and the frosh “The Handler” on Friday. With the improved lead-in, Letterman’s numbers should be stable, not dropping.

But there remains the problem of the late local news lead-in. CBS O&Os remains weak compared with the competition, particularly NBC, giving Leno’s show just one more advantage in the midnight hour.

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