David Letterman Stays Above the Viral Video Fray

CBS host plays to linear auds while younger rivals Fallon, Kimmel seek digital buzz

David Letterman Above Vivral Videos

Does David Letterman need to return to the days of dropping stuff off a five-story tower?

When Letterman tested such antics during his anarchic “Late Night” run on NBC, it provided a hint of the oddball and lent his show a defi nitive style. Had today’s technology been around, he may well have been a viral star on the order of his contemporary latenight rivals like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon.

Kimmel and Fallon won’t truly duke it out until Fallon moves up to 11:35 p.m. on the Peacock after Jay Leno steps down. But already, each seems to be trying to outdo the other on the passalong video front: Fallon gets Robin Thicke to join the Roots in a rendition of “Blurred Lines” played on toy instruments; Kimmel shames the nation’s TV-news business by rigging a video, picked up by many, in which an at-home twerker appears to light her legs on fire. The sketches add luster to their programs, and the digital reverb lights up the younger crowds that will fuel their programs in the not-too-distant future.

Letterman seems to sit above it all. “We’re in a different cycle than almost every other show. We are no longer fighting for recognition,” said Rob Burnett, exec producer of Letterman’s “Late Show” and chief executive of his production company, Worldwide Pants. “Part of Dave’s genius is what he doesn’t do. If he was still putting on a Velcro suit and jumping on a wall, he’d be the television equivalent of Gallagher.”

Should Dave step into the fray? Your response is a vote on how audiences intend to view TV’s latenight circus. Is the heart of a latenight program the actual TV show, which fewer and fewer people watch at the time it airs? Or is it the digital aftermath, in which people hear about overnight kookiness and furiously peck away to access the fun via smartphone?

For now, Letterman is doing the smart thing: playing to the people who watch him on CBS.

The latenight audience isn’t young. The median age for “Late Show” season to date is 59.1, according to Nielsen; 57.5 for NBC’s “Tonight”; 53.5 for Kimmel; and 52.5 for Fallon. “The Late Show” is profitable, according to people familiar with the situation, and generates around $150 million in annual ad revenue. Digital viewing brings little to the bank. (The one area where “Late Show” is active on the digital front is the “Live on Letterman” extended concert webcasts for hot musical acts that appear on the show, though revenue from that, too, is minimal.)

The urgency to be in the viral vid biz could grow if the networks devise a model that brings in money not only for ads airing within a TV show but also within the streams in which they’re featured — say, next-day VOD, YouTube snacking, etc. Absent that, Letterman can keep on keeping on. He and CBS recently signed a new contract that has him on the air through 2015.

“Late Show” staffers aren’t operating as if the show is winding down, said Burnett. “When Dave wants to step down is a question only Dave can answer,” he said.

Letterman may feel his stunt days are over (Suit of Suet, anyone?). One tunes in now for candor, not critters. Dave often speaks in unvarnished fashion about politics, the TV business or some young celebrity’s wacky behavior. The eyebrow-raising moments usually come within the program itself, not in some cutaway video. And he follows his own sense of what’s cool: On a recent show, Letterman devoted a whopping two segments to Clive Davis, the record-company exec who talked about everyone from Lou Reed to Bruce Springsteen — not headliner Will Arnett.

If Letterman intends to stick with the grind, though, a day may come when doing the TV show isn’t enough. If that’s the case, the guy who wrote the contemporary rulebook for latenight may ask himself if he wants to be bound by a new one.