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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Same Dave, Same Jay, Same Hype : Television: The Leno-versus-Letterman late-night war brings out the worst in newscasters as anchors shamelessly promote the news.

September 01, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

David Letterman, glad to have ya.

--Weathercaster/entertainment reporter Mark McEwen on "CBS This Morning" Tuesday.

Chauvinism is no newcomer to television news. Newscasters have been unethically favoring their own and patting themselves on the back since the inception of the camera's little red light.

But Leno vs. Letterman-- 1993's Super Bowl of hyperbolic swill--has driven this unique species of advocacy journalism to a level of historic resonance.

"Go Dave!" KCBS-TV Channel 2 anchor Bree Walker said at the end of Monday's 11 p.m. newscast, leading to the premiere of "Late Show With David Letterman."

Walker's off-handed cheer for the home team's new star followed excerpts of her exclusive interview with Letterman ("Dave revealed to me . . . "), which followed exclusive team coverage of Letterman's CBS debut in New York by Steve Rambo and Larry Menote. The latter promised Los Angeles viewers that if the response he received to the already taped telecast was an indication, "you're in for a great show."

There was even an exclusive comment about Letterman's show from CBS Broadcast Group president Howard Stringer. He was coy, but he appeared to like it.

When it came to a single stereophonic display of boosterism, though, no one could touch "Today" host Katie Couric, who ended her Monday interview of Jay Leno on the NBC news series by good-naturedly standing and saluting Leno. "I'm rooting for ya," the raging Lenoist declared.

Putting this into perspective, imagine the response had Couric, even facetiously, capped a gushy 1992 election interview with George Bush, Bill Clinton or Ross Perot by saluting and saying, "I'm rooting for ya." So . . . why this double standard when it comes to corporate favoritism?

Of course, all of "Today" was rooting for Leno, judging by the thick red carpet it rolled out for him in advance of his initial Monday night clash with Letterman, who vacated his old 12:35 a.m. time slot on NBC to take this new 11:35 p.m. show on CBS.

And the carpet rolled right through several newscasts on KNBC-TV Channel 4, which stationed entertainment critic/reporter David Sheehan "live outside Leno headquarters" in Burbank at 5 p.m. to introduce his exclusive Leno interview excerpts and to hype the ensuing newscast's hype. "If you will be here with us for the Channel 4 news at 6, we'll have a little preview of the (Leno) monologue." The Leno show is taped there in the late afternoon.

Sheehan wondered aloud, exclusively, if Leno would mention Letterman. "I have a feeling he will," he said, answering his own question, slyly. That tease.

It was a given that portions of Leno's monologue would show up during Channel 4's 11 p.m. newscast. When it came to self-serving late-night promotion, though, it was CBS News that wielded by far the largest megaphone.

In recent days, Letterman has logged as much time on "CBS This Morning" as hosts Paula Zahn and Harry Smith. By Monday, it was obvious that the CBS news series was snagging itself on splinters from the bottom of the barrel. In a typical question, Zahn wanted to know if Letterman wanted to become a father. "I want to have children," he replied. "I will get to it. So just relax."

Relax? Was he jesting? As ABC's "Nightline" and Ted Koppel tracked Hurricane Emily Monday night, Jay and Dave watchers tracked their personal favorites in this first night of head-to-head battle that promises to occupy the entertainment media's attention for the foreseeable future. At one point, while Leno was in the studio asking "Beverly Hills, 90210" heartthrob Luke Perry if he was still riding bulls, Letterman was going door to door in a New Jersey suburb via videotape, playfully soliciting ideas from seemingly baffled residents for his new late-night show.

"Would you watch a television show that had naked people on playground equipment?" he asked a couple as the picture dissolved to blurry figures of nudes.

It was a moment that, even in the infancy of their competition, defined the essential difference in the styles and humor of Leno and Letterman.

In an instance of irony, the New Dave said good night to his first-night CBS audience at approximately the same time the Old Dave was saying hello to his first NBC late-night audience in 1982, as NBC on Monday resumed rerunning "Late Night With David Letterman" at 12:35 a.m. in advance of Conan O'Brien taking over that time slot on Sept. 13.

With initial volleys having been fired, what happens now? An end to the advocacy? Dream on. At least Tuesday's "Today" gave a reasonably balanced account of Monday's Leno-Letterman encounter. But not those other guys.

"This was the hour everybody was waiting for, the hour Dave took over late night," weathercaster/entertainment reporter Mark McEwen boomed on "CBS This Morning" Tuesday. "Earlier in the day," McEwen added exclusively, "he took over Manhattan."

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