For David Letterman, the address is still CBS.
And for Ted Koppel, “Nightline” seems to have dodged a bullet — but for how long remains an open question. Koppel and his “Nightline” producers issued a roughly worded statement demanding clarification of the show’s fate.
Ending more than a week of frenzied speculation — as well as ABC’s clearest shot at breaking into the latenight comedy war — Letterman and his reps at CAA Monday reached agreement on a new five-year, $150 million-plus deal that’ll keep him on the Eye through 2007.
Letterman announced his decision Monday during the taping of his CBS “Late Show.”
“I would like to finish my career — a week from Tuesday — at CBS,” Letterman quipped, noting “this has not been a very easy decision for me.”
When Letterman’s audience applauded his announcement, the comic shot back: “I know it sounds pretty good to you, folks, but there goes the vacation to Disney World.”
ABC execs had made a bold play to sign Letterman after CBS — perhaps thinking Letterman had no place else to go — failed to reach a new deal with the comic during an exclusive negotiating window.
Word that the Disney-owned Alphabet was willing to dump Ted Koppel’s venerable “Nightline” to make room for Letterman touched off a media firestorm, with critics charging Mouse House execs with putting profits over public service. ABC execs countered they couldn’t ignore a chance to substantially improve the net’s bottom line, and insisted that the company remains committed to news coverage.
Letterman, who had been on vacation since news of the ABC offer leaked out, didn’t waste much time making up his mind once he returned from his St. Barts hideaway. His reps briefed him on each nets’ latest offer as well as their respective sales pitches on how they’d do more to hype Letterman’s “Late Show.”
CBS topper Les Moonves and Letterman talked at least once Monday, but the net didn’t have an official answer from the Letterman camp until just a few minutes before the start of the “Late Show” taping. ABC was notified around the same time.
“We’re glad Dave is staying at CBS,” Moonves told Daily Variety.
But in a sign that relations between CBS and Letterman’s reps remain somewhat strained, the show cut off the close circuit feed from the Ed Sullivan Theater to Eye execs.
In the end, reps for both sides said money wasn’t the central issue in the negotiations; indeed, ABC’s offer may have bested the Eye’s on that count, some insiders said.
Instead, Letterman wanted reassurances that whichever net broadcast his show would offer significant promotional support to the “Late Show.” Deal with CBS is said to contain specific clauses guaranteeing such promotion across the various properties of the Eye’s Viacom parents, as well as on CBS itself.
There’s also a provision mandating that CBS-owned stations shift seamlessly from their local newscasts in “Late Show,” a common technique used to hold onto an audience. And in the few cases each year when CBS’ primetime sked runs past 11 p.m. for a few minutes, the owned stations will shorten their newscasts so “Late Show” can start on time.
Still, Letterman will also get plenty of coin, pulling in roughly $31.5 million in the first year, with annual increases; Eye will also continue to pick up production costs related to “Late Show” and production outlet Worldwide Pants. Deal is said to be not substantially richer than Letterman’s previous pact.
Letterman’s reps wouldn’t talk money, but said the new deal was essentially a continuation of his existing one in terms of coin.
Moreover, “If the $31.5 million figure is correct, Dave is well worth that,” said Worldwide Pants topper/ “Ed” exec producer Rob Burnett. “If you look at it, the show generates $225 million (in ad revenue) for CBS. That’s not a bad deal.”
During his opening monologue, Letterman made several jokes about the fuss surrounding his future. When he sat down at his desk, he announced his decision to stay at CBS for the rest of his career.
He praised execs at ABC and indicated he would never have talked to the net if he didn’t already believe it was planning to kill “Nightline” no matter what.
“To me, (ABC execs) were gracious and generous and very, very patient,” he said. “Whatever you decide to do at 11:30, I wish you the very best. And my personal hope is that it will continue to be occupied by Ted Koppel and ‘Nightline’ for as long as that guy would like to have that job.”
On Monday, ABC issued a statement suggesting that “Nightline” was staying put — at least in the short term.
“From the outset, we’ve always said that Ted Koppel and ‘Nightline’ would have a significant presence at ABC News,” network prexy Alex Wallau said. ” ‘Nightline’ will remain in its time period, where it will continue to provide its distinctive brand of journalism for the network.”
Wallau, however, didn’t say for how long Koppel would stay at 11:35 p.m. Some believe the net will continue to hunt for new latenight opportunities, including “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart or, if he’s interested, thesp Chris Rock.
And Koppel seemed unconvinced by Wallau’s statement, noting that “collateral damage has been done” by ABC’s efforts to woo Letterman.
“We need something more than bland assurances or a short-term guarantee,” Koppel and producers Tom Bettag and Leroy Sievers said in a joint statement. “We need to be able to plan, to prepare, to settle down to work again.
“We hope the corporate leadership of Disney understands that it would not be reasonable to expect all of us at Nightline to continue our work in a climate of ongoing uncertainty,” the statement said. “There must be a great many talented comedians who would welcome the opportunity to take over the ‘Nightline’ time slot. Our hope is that Disney will send a clear and unmistakable signal to them, to us, to the advertising community and to all of our loyal viewers interested in the robust future of network television news that ‘Nightline’ can count on serious corporate backing.”
Meanwhile, ABC’s statements Monday failed to mention “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher,” which the net is expected to cancel later this year. A net spokesman declined comment on the show’s fate.