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Letterman's Hip Quotient Is Back Up but Ratings Trail

Television: A year after hiring a new executive producer to energize his 'Late Show,' the host is on a critical roll but still behind the competition.


NEW YORK — David Letterman's "Late Show" is in an odd position these days.

One year after changing executive producers to give the program a jolt of energy, Letterman's late-night talk show on CBS is winning accolades from critics--for a four-city tour last fall that included a memorable performance by defeated presidential candidate Bob Dole, and for a 15th anniversary special on Feb. 24 that included the "revelation" by Alec Baldwin that Dave is a disowned Baldwin brother.

The New York Times praised Letterman's absurdist comic attitude, and a TV Guide cover story declared Dave "still cool" and "on a roll."

And yet, in the period since Letterman fired longtime associate Robert Morton and replaced him at the helm with former head writer Rob Burnett, his ratings are down 12% and trail both NBC's "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and ABC's "Nightline" with Ted Koppel.

Even the new entrant in the late-night sweepstakes, ABC's "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," has been beating the CBS show in some markets where the two go head to head during Letterman's second half-hour.

"Obviously, we'd like to have bigger ratings," Burnett, the 33-year-old executive producer of "The Late Show," said in an interview. "But we have a real disadvantage in terms of our lead-in programming on CBS. I dare you to find a lot of 18- to 34-year-olds watching CBS shows. That's not their target audience, while it is ours."

David Poltrack, CBS' executive vice president in charge of research, acknowledged that "The Late Show" has lost some of its novelty with viewers since moving over from NBC in 1993 and taking command of the late-night arena.

"The show doesn't have the same kind of momentum going for it that it did in its early years on CBS," Poltrack said. "But the drop in ratings has not been matched by a significant decline in the appeal of Letterman or in overall satisfaction with the program, according to our viewer research. We think the show is as strong creatively now as it's ever been--but Letterman is having to work harder to recruit viewers in a more crowded landscape."

Since the TV season began last September, the top-rated "Tonight Show" has been reaching an average of 4.9 million homes per night, compared to 4.5 million for ABC's "Nightline" and 3.5 million for Letterman. And according to Nielsen figures released late last week, "The Tonight Show" last month had its best February sweeps since 1990, attracting an average of 6.6 million viewers per night compared to 4.7 million for "The Late Show."

"Two years ago, we were depicted as the gang that couldn't shoot straight in late night," said Rick Ludwin, senior vice president in charge of late-night programming at NBC. "We're now dominant in all day-parts. And, for the first time, 'The Tonight Show' is beating Letterman among 18- to 34-year-olds as well as in overall viewers."

ABC, meantime, is "thrilled," an ABC spokeswoman said, with the ratings for "Politically Incorrect," which switched from cable's Comedy Central to the post-"Nightline" slot in January. "Politically Incorrect" is now in fourth place in the late-night ratings, averaging 2.7 million homes a night thus far.

"Our challenge is greater now because of 'Politically Incorrect,' " CBS' Poltrack said. He also noted that Letterman is hurt by the frequently low-rated local-news ratings on CBS affiliates.

Despite the ratings problems, Burnett said he plans no major changes in the format of the show.

"In my lame attempt at being Knute Rockne, I tell my staff that we should focus on putting out the most creative show possible--and hope that viewers will find us," he said.

Burnett cited a new feature in which Letterman quizzes audience members about current events as a new segment that is working. "Dave is always great when you put him with ordinary people," he said.

Of rumors that Letterman might switch coasts, Burnett said, "We're not planning to move to L.A."

Burnett took command of "The Late Show" last March after Letterman fired producer Morton, who had been with him for 15 years. The entertainer explained at the time that there were several reasons for the move, but chief among them was his belief that the program had "fallen into a fallow period creatively."

"Morty is a terrific producer but, in some ways, he outgrew us," Burnett said. Morton, who is developing several sitcoms in a production deal with ABC, declined comment.

How does Letterman, who is notoriously self-critical, feel about the drop in ratings? "I'm sure he'd like to be No. 1, but his mood is good," Burnett said. "He's been very pleased with some of the shows we've done recently, and with the reviews we've gotten for them."

Even with the ratings decline, Letterman still makes millions of dollars for CBS, and he has a contract with CBS that runs through the year 2000.

"Even with today's numbers, we'd still make the deal with Letterman that we made four years ago," Poltrack said. "Letterman is a signature show for us. If we can give him some more help in local news and prime-time demographics, his ratings will turn around."

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