The day after CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky all but guaranteed that his network has locked up David Letterman as a late-night host, his boss displayed a more cautious approach Tuesday.
"I can't stand up here and say this decision has been made," CBS Broadcast Group President Howard Stringer told TV critics in Santa Monica during their annual winter gathering.
For Sagansky to say that CBS will get Letterman is "sort of the same as (Sagansky) saying that 'Tequila & Bonetti' is going to be a hit," the executive joked, referring to one of last year's less memorable series. "It's part of Jeff's charm."
On the other hand, Stringer credited a similar bold prediction from Sagansky more than a year ago--when he said that CBS would rise from the cellar to No. 1 in the prime-time ratings--as the impetus that helped the network accomplish just that last season.
Stringer said the possibility of Letterman leaving NBC to join CBS is "still a big if," because NBC has the last word on the deal. NBC has until Friday to match a lucrative offer from CBS or else lose Letterman, who wants the 11:35 p.m. time slot now belonging to Jay Leno and "The Tonight Show."
"They have a difficult decision," he said. "I empathize with them--not a lot. They have two bridegrooms at the altar."
Stringer told reporters that he began courting the Letterman show's executive producers, Robert Morton and Peter Lassally, a year and a half ago, when CBS executives spotted a need for a late-night network franchise similar to "The Tonight Show."
That courtship soon became a "burgeoning friendship," he said, as they regularly began scheduling lunches and exchanging cards. Stringer believes that Letterman would add a prestige and a greater identity to his network.
Stringer did stand behind Sagansky's statement that virtually 100% of CBS' affiliates would clear Letterman because it's in their long-term interest, even though heavily leveraged stations can earn more immediate profits by airing syndicated programming.
"We're going to have to do a lot of sweet-talking and some rough-talking. I don't expect to roll over and play dead on this," Stringer said.
Last year, CBS had tough negotiations with its affiliated stations when the network imposed lower compensation fees to air the programs CBS supplies.
"We will remind (our stations) that together we stand, divided we fall, and we haven't done a great job of that lately," Stringer said.