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Letterman vs. Leno: A New Front in the East-West War : Culture: This faceoff between city sophistication and frontier folksiness is New York's last chance for victory. But has it already lost?

September 05, 1993|Steven D. Stark | Steven D. Stark, who has written for the Atlantic and the Washington Post, is a commentator for National Public Radio

BOSTON — So the most hyped debut in television history is over and the David Letterman-Jay Leno ratings struggle has begun. But in retrospect, why all the ads, the magazine covers and the commotion over what is, after all, an hour of TV when more than half of America has gone to bed? Sure, network profits and prestige are at stake, but it's more than that. The Letterman-Leno battle is the latest volley in an age-old war between New York and California--if not the whole East and West--as to who better represents the country and has the better way of life.

It's a struggle that has defined America: East vs. West, city vs. frontier, sophistication vs. brawn. "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots," Herman J. Mankiewicz wired Ben Hecht from Hollywood, a theme Woody Allen milked in "Annie Hall." Not to be outdone, Hollywood often depicts New York the way it did in "Ghost"--as a place populated by scheming yuppies and terrorizing thugs.

As any census expert or politician will tell you, this is a battle of images and demography the West won decades ago. After all, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan became President, not Nelson A. Rockefeller and Mario M. Cuomo; Hollywood--not New York--has controlled the propaganda machine that is the entertainment industry for decades, and even if the flow of immigration to California has slowed in recent tough times, the rate of exodus from New York remains high.

A majority of Americans now live in suburbs on the Southern California model, not in cities. Still, reality has a way of getting discarded when the New York-based press, the New York advertising industry and a New York-based network are promoting yet another contender to reclaim for that city and region the right to call itself a national symbol.

Playing host to the late-night king is an important role to New Yorkers--who like to think they inhabit the only "city that never sleeps." Losing TV and movie production was one thing, bidding farewell to the Dodgers was another and having California surpass New York in population was yet a third slight. But losing "The Tonight Show," in 1972, to Burbank, of all places, may have been the unkindest cut of all. "The Tonight Show," after all, was intended as a New Yorkeresque video "Talk of the Town." Its late-night predecessor was even called "Broadway Open House."

By the time Sylvester L. (Pat) Weaver had turned that show into "Tonight!" in the mid-'50s, it had become TV's version of the Algonquin Round Table. As the supposed venue for scintillating, late-night New York sophistication, it became a gathering point for comedians such as Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl, considered too hot for Hollywood and thus prime time.

With Jack Paar at the helm from 1957-62, the show, if anything, enhanced its urbane reputation. If prime-time television--now firmly in the grasp of Hollywood--was then on its way to becoming a "vast wasteland," many intellectuals saw Paar as the medium's salvation--a late-night Edward R. Murrow. This was, after all, a "serious" talk show that not only featured the Zsa Zsa Gabors, but Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer and John F. Kennedy, the last President from the East. In 1961, Paar even took a crew to West Berlin, right after the Wall went up.

That's something Johnny Carson, the host of "The Tonight Show" from 1962 to 1992, never would have done. If Paar was Murrow or Kennedy, Carson, once he got out West, was Reagan--low-key, genial and relentlessly upbeat. Whether it was the style of Carson's suits, his continual references to Burbank, his unglitzy sidekick and orchestra or the way the set now looked like a Glendale living room, this show reeked of Southern California.

That's one reason why, as the nation's soul moved West both spiritually and demographically, the show's audience more than doubled, despite efforts to re-establish a New York alternative. (Remember Dick Cavett?) In the 20 years since, New York's claim to television fame has been that it hosted "Sesame Street," the news and late, late night TV, not to mention "Saturday Night Live"--a baby-boomer "Broadway Open House."

Now come Leno and Letterman. Fittingly, Letterman operates out of the Ed Sullivan Theatre--home of TV's last great New York hit, "The Ed Sullivan Show." The show opens with New York night scenes and there is a fake skyscraper montage behind Letterman's desk.

In contrast, there is little sense of place on "The Tonight Show" set Leno inherited: It stands for the proposition that a TV studio is a TV studio because, once the lights go out, there's no there there.

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