The sense of nausea and panic that used to grip NBC executives every morning when they got the ratings flashes on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" is easing. For the first time in 14 months, some in Burbank must be thinking that they didn't make the worst blunder in television history after all.
That blunder, of course, was the decision to replace Johnny Carson with Jay Leno, and as a result send David Letterman into the arms of CBS, where he won a $42-million, three-year contract to go against Leno at 11:35 p.m. weeknights. In the initial months since Letterman premiered on CBS, he bloodied Leno by more than doubling the ratings CBS was getting in the time period.
While Leno remains a decided No. 2 behind Letterman, he nonetheless in recent weeks and months has managed to close the ratings gap--to the point where he has been beating Letterman consistently in such major markets as Los Angeles and Chicago. And in the ratings two weeks ago, Leno and Letterman tied--which for the underdog in TV is often viewed as a victory.
Indeed, during the first three weeks of October, "The Tonight Show" is up about 10% in the ratings while "The Late Show" has slipped about 4%. However, a whole ratings point still separates Leno from Letterman--equivalent to about 94,000 TV homes.
"Leno has come into his own," says Bill Croasedale, president of broadcast media at Western Media in Beverly Hills. "The pressures are off. He's more comfortable and doesn't feel there's a gun against his head, and that comes across with the audience as well."
Clearly, there has to be more to Leno's turnaround than his new, shaggier haircut. NBC and "Tonight Show" executives attribute the rebound to a number of factors.
"The turning point was the New York trip," says Debbie Vickers, the show's producer, referring to the week in May that Leno spent in New York in response to Letterman's invasion of his home turf. "He was closer to the audience and they were much friendlier to him."
Leno cherishes the cheek-by-jowl atmosphere of clubs such as the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, where both he and Letterman honed their acts back in the 1970s. Leno's New York stint reminded the producers that Leno works best when in close interaction with the audience.
So one of the first things the producers did when they returned to Los Angeles from New York was get NBC to build a new $1.4-million studio for "The Tonight Show." Until then, Leno had done his show from Carson's old digs. "There were ghosts there," Vickers says, laughing. The new studio puts the audience much closer to Leno--literally within a couple of feet--almost giving it the feel of a nightclub.
Now that the ghosts have been purged by moving the show across the hall, the producers are also tweaking Leno's format by having various stars "drop by." To supplement the usual lineup of three guests, the producers are inviting a fourth celebrity on the show for brief appearances and on-air stunts. Richard Simmons, Rip Taylor, Florence Henderson--even Ross Perot, who showed up with some of his famous charts in hand--have all done recent "walk-ons."
The new, more spontaneous Leno is probably best exemplified by the on-air tiff that erupted between Nickelodeon host Mark Summers and Burt Reynolds a few weeks back. Summers, after being egged on by Reynolds, snapped at him, "At least I'm still married." Reynolds then tossed his mug of water at Summers. During the commercial break, a gleeful Leno leaned over to Summers and whispered in his ear, "Man, this is great television!"
Late-night television, even when it is only moderately successful by prime-time standards, can be a gold mine for the networks because it is less costly to produce. CBS is estimated to earn between $75 million and $100 million from Letterman. Leno's show, some contend, earns about $60 million.
Moreover, both CBS and NBC are benefiting from the shakeout in the late-night television wars, where "The Arsenio Hall Show," "The Chevy Chase Show" and "Dennis Miller" have all fallen by the wayside. New syndicated late-night shows such as "Last Call," "The Newz" and "The Jon Stewart Show" are performing poorly.
"It's very intimidating, no matter what are the dollars they throw in your face," says Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment. "If you don't have the backing of one of the big three networks, it's pretty scary out there."
Littlefield and other NBC executives believe the recent positive trend in the major markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago foreshadows what will happen with Leno in the rest of the country. Still, the country's largest TV market, New York, remains out of grasp. "Dave's always done a show that feels very New York," says Littlefield.