David Letterman, seen last Friday night (May 15, 2015) on his CBS “Late Show.” Photo: CBS
WHEN A CERTAIN NEWSPAPER TV SECTION WAGED WAR ON THE LETTERMAN SHOW
By ADAM BUCKMAN
The memories come flooding back in this final week of David Letterman’s CBS “Late Show,” which has its final broadcast on Wednesday (May 20).
One such memory goes all the way back to 1995, the year Jay Leno overtook Letterman to seize the top spot in the late-night ratings — a position Leno held for the remainder of his run on NBC’s “Tonight Show.”
Here is the story, in full, of how a newspaper TV section covered this particular battle in the late-night wars in the summer of 1995.
The story is excerpted from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by yours truly, Adam Buckman. It follows a section about Jerry Seinfeld.
On Oct. 17, 1995, the New York Post TV section asked its readers: “What do you suggest Dave should do to reverse his show’s ratings slide?” Read what happened next, below …
Chapter Four: THE TALK OF THE TOWN
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If the Post’s “Seinfeld” poll had anything to do with sapping Seinfeld’s confidence in himself and his show, then this whole “poll” episode emerges as another instance in which a public figure attached much too much importance to some silly feature in an impish tabloid.
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Or maybe I was always the one who habitually underestimated the significance of these things. Not that I lacked pride in my work, but I always assumed that a newspaper, purchased for loose change and read cover to cover in the time it takes to travel a half-dozen stops on the subway, was ultimately forgotten within a few hours, if not minutes.
And yet, celebrities and their handlers felt differently. Such was the case in 1995 when David Letterman’s executive producer arranged a summit meeting with the Post’s editors to discuss the TV section’s near-constant abuse of Dave. One of the final straws for the producer, Robert Morton – known as Morty – was, yes, another ornery Flash-Fax Poll, this one published on Oct. 17, 1995.
It was a watershed year for Letterman and late-night television, for it was the year Jay Leno caught up to Letterman in the ratings and then surpassed him, reestablishing NBC’s “Tonight Show” as the time period’s dominant show for the next 14 seasons.
To put it mildly, we were rooting for Jay. Why? Well, I’d like to say it was because the struggles of an underdog always make for great newspaper stories, and it was no less true in 1995 as Leno doggedly pursued Letterman in the ratings. But our decidedly negative focus on Letterman that year could more accurately be described as a vengeful response to the apparently low regard in which Letterman and his representatives held the New York Post’s TV section.
Their attitude was made crystal clear one week in May as Letterman prepared to take his show to London, England, for a week of special telecasts from the British capital. The shows were due to start on Monday, May 15, and Letterman was suddenly all over the place conducting interviews with newspapers and magazines to promote the trip, including our principal competitors, the New York Daily News and The New York Times. But Letterman and his press reps made no time for a phoner with the Post. Indeed, we didn’t learn the normally press shy late-night host was agreeing to be interviewed that week until we read an interview in the Daily News.
The reasons for our exclusion have faded from memory if, in fact, I ever learned them. Sometimes, the Post TV section was left off the list of media in line for celebrity interviews simply because, well, we were part of the Post. And maybe Letterman’s people were miffed at some offense committed elsewhere in the paper that had nothing to do with us. Maybe it was an item on the paper’s hard-hitting gossip page, Page Six, that had offended Letterman, as happened sometimes with celebrities sought by the TV section. Or maybe the paper had been among those that had come down hard on Letterman after he hosted the Oscars in March and was lambasted by critics for his performance.
Whatever the reason, in the absence of a Letterman interview to publish that week, we were still faced with finding a way to climb aboard the Letterman bandwagon, since, interview or no interview, I felt an obligation to note the show’s trip to London somewhere in the TV section because this particular stunt happened to be unusual enough to qualify as big news.
With no interview, it seemed to me that there was only one other angle available to explore, and that was the state of Letterman’s ratings on the eve of this overseas trip undertaken smack in the middle of the May ratings sweep. Fortunately, there was a legitimate ratings story brewing that spring. Letterman had dominated late-night television ever since he launched his new “Late Show” on CBS in August 1993. But by May 1995, Jay Leno, who had taken over for Johnny Carson on NBC’s “Tonight Show” on May 25, 1992, was gaining on Letterman.
That was the state of late-night when I weighed in on the closeness of the competition in a column published on Friday, May 12, 1995, when Letterman and his producers were already in London preparing for the following week.
I was editor of the TV section at the time and rarely wrote columns. But I recall taking on this assignment myself in order to relieve any of the department’s staff writers from bearing the brunt of any complaints that might arise over the negative tone of the coverage I was planning. Besides, I was enraged by Letterman and his people passing us over for an interview, as if the Post, with a circulation somewhere around 450,000 copies everyday, was not important enough to include among all the other papers which were lining up to help Letterman publicize his London telecasts.
So I conspired to hit them right between the eyes with a column headlined “Diving Dave’s decline” in 90-point type and taking up nearly an entire page. The column characterized Letterman as “cocky” and his style of comedy as “twisted” and “sick.” A caption under a photo of Letterman hosting the Oscars called him a “late-night loser.” And Leno, who nine times out of 10 had been customarily depicted in the pages of the Post’s TV section with that grotesque “spit-take” photo from the Associated Press, was newly elevated in status. Gone was the spit-take picture; in its place was a photo of a confident Jay Leno at the wheel of one of his classic cars. Leno was no longer a late-night loser; he was now, according to the column, “NBC’s brash, never-say-die challenger.”
“The cocky king of late-night is about to be toppled from his throne,” read the column’s lead sentence. The piece then laid out the relevant ratings data, demonstrating how Letterman’s numbers had fallen during the past year while Leno’s had climbed, until by mid-May 1995, Leno was trailing Letterman by just one-tenth of a ratings point.
“If the trend continues,” the column boldly predicted, “Leno will surpass Letterman soon.”
However, even after painstakingly detailing the case for Leno’s probable ascension to the top of the late-night ratings, I still had about 10 column inches to fill. So I hammered Letterman. What did I have to lose? We had no relationship with Letterman and his press office, anyway. What difference did it make whether they were offended by a column in the Post?
So, I let fly. “This year, Letterman has had one failure after another,” I opined. “He and his producers chose Tom Snyder to host the show following Letterman’s ‘Late Show,’ billing Snyder as ‘the consummate broadcaster’ who would win his time period against NBC’s ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’ as decisively as Letterman used to beat Leno.
“But guess what,” I pointed out, “More than five months after his debut, Snyder has made no headway against O’Brien.”
“Then,” I continued, laying it on thick, “Letterman hosted the Oscars, where his twisted, sick humor was unanimously panned by critics.”
I even complained about Letterman’s trip to England, implying that it was impractical, if not unpatriotic. “Now,” I scoffed, “at a time when Letterman desperately needs to win new fans here at home, he’s going to England for a week of shows.”
One of the lessons I learned early on at the Post: If you are going to burn bridges or people, do it in style. Use big headlines, choose large pictures, apply blunt verbiage.
The column evidently hit home because it wasn’t long on that Friday before I received a phone call from London. It was Letterman’s publicist. And she tore into me. She took issue with every aspect of the column – from the name-calling (“late-night loser,” “cocky king”), for which I didn’t really blame her, to the litany of ratings data, which, truth be told, were unassailable, though she tried mightily to assail them. I remember that I happened to have my tape recorder hooked up to my phone when she called and I recorded the entire diatribe. Some time later, I taped over it, possibly because it was so vicious I wished never to hear it again.
It was one of those instances when I would begin to doubt my own judgment. I wondered: Had I gone too far? In analyzing the ratings data, had I treated the subject fairly in building a case for my prediction that Letterman was on track to fall behind Leno within a few months? Couldn’t I have written that caption under Letterman’s photo without the three-word, bold-face starter in all caps: “LATE-NIGHT LOSER”?
I contemplated these questions all the way until Monday morning. That’s when I picked up The New York Times and saw an interview with Letterman in a story that analyzed his ratings and pointed out, in a manner similar to the way I had on Friday, that Leno was breathing down Letterman’s neck. I wondered if the Times reporter received an angry phone call from London, though I knew the likely answer to that was no.
It was always the same old story – other papers, such as the Times, handled their story subjects with kid gloves, while we at the Post handled them with boxing gloves. So we got screamed at, while our competitors got the interviews we coveted.
For consolation at such times, I would conjure a lesson imparted by a former editor at an earlier job, in 1986, after I had just gotten off the phone with an irate spokeswoman from a New York radio station. She was reacting to a story I wrote about the death of the station’s traffic reporter, who was killed when the station’s helicopter crashed into the Hudson River. The spokeswoman was angered by the story’s suggestion that the station had possibly behaved negligently in leasing the helicopter from a company with a checkered safety record. Naturally, she took issue with that suggestion and berated me for it. Afterwards, this editor told me, “The louder they yell, the more accurate your story probably was.” His aphorism has proven true virtually every time a story subject or his or her representative has called up to scream at me.
However, that is where the teachings of this particular editor began and ended. He didn’t say anything about taking revenge or escalating the hostilities. No, I came up with that strategy all on my own, for that was the summer we beat up David Letterman.
You could argue the story was legitimate, at least in its most basic form, which was the account of Letterman’s continuing slide in the ratings and Leno’s rise. And Leno might have eventually passed Letterman under normal circumstances, but Leno was aided by happenstance in the form of a movie star suddenly derailed by scandal. It was Hugh Grant, who was arrested in Hollywood on June 27 when vice cops nabbed him in his parked car while he availed himself of the services of a transvestite prostitute. He was previously scheduled to appear on Leno’s “Tonight Show” about two weeks later, on July 10, and he kept the date. The show – in which Leno began his interview with the question, “What the hell were you thinking?” – became the most talked-about show in Leno’s entire tenure as “Tonight Show” host and it won for him the boost he needed to close the gap. In August, he moved ahead of Letterman in the ratings and stayed there for good.
It’s doubtful our negative coverage of Letterman that summer helped move the ratings needle for Leno. Despite the Post’s circulation and its ability, at least occasionally, to influence opinion, I always believed that the paper and, by extension, its back-of-the-paper television section, was no match for the TV networks, which all maintained well-populated p.r. departments whose job it was to offset any negative publicity that came their way. Moreover, the audience for network television – numbering in the tens of millions – was far larger than the Post’s readership, and the networks had millions of promotional dollars at their disposal and their own airtime on which to spend it.
Still, the press clung to the ratings story that summer, but none more zealously than the Post. Week after week, when the Nielsen ratings for the previous week were released – which traditionally happened every Thursday – we ballyhooed Leno’s rise and in the process seized every opportunity we could to kick Letterman to the curb.
We would gratuitously bombard him with headlines, captions and belittling phrases. “JAY CLOBBERS DAVE” read one headline on an otherwise routine ratings story that ordinarily would not carry a headline weighing in at about 90 points and composed in all-caps. “DAVE’S OUT AT HOME” was the headline on another story about how Leno was even beating Letterman in the ratings in New York, hometown of Letterman’s “Late Show,” on the local stations owned by the networks, WNBC and WCBS. We labeled Letterman a “strikeout king” and took pains to proclaim, “David Letterman’s reign as New York’s late-night comedy king is over.”
In one story brilliantly contrived by one of our TV reporters, Josef Adalian, we took Letterman to task for smoking cigars on his show. The story included statements from public health officials decrying Letterman’s smoking habit and admonishing him for setting a poor example for youth.
By September, we were even focusing on the ratings race during weeks when Leno and Letterman were on vacation and their shows were in reruns – something we never would have covered previously. In one over-sized headline published on Sept. 1, we declared: “Jay’s the king of late-night reruns,” accompanied by a subhead: “Leno notches another win while Dave vacations,” implying that Letterman, who was taking a two-week vacation to Leno’s one week off, was loafing while his harder-working rival steadily built an ever-increasing lead. “Letterman’s two-week vacation continues,” the story noted, “while Leno has been hard at work this week.” By this time, Leno had beaten Letterman in four of the preceding seven weeks. My prediction of May 12 had come true. The story of Leno’s rise and diving Dave’s decline should have been coming to a close. But I didn’t let up.
By Oct. 17, it was time for a “Flash-Fax Poll.” This one was headlined: “Dave’s dilemma,” and featured a headshot of a grinning, confident Jay Leno on the left side and on the right, a headshot of Letterman grimacing. “With David Letterman’s ratings declining, the Post wants to know how you feel about him,” said the poll’s text. “What do you suggest Dave should do to reverse his show’s ratings slide?” The poll attracted more than 200 responses and it undoubtedly played a role in what happened next, at least indirectly, as Letterman’s executive producer decided he had had enough of the Post TV section ragging on his show.
For Robert Morton, the straw that broke the camel’s back was not specifically the poll, or one of our overblown headlines, or our contrivances about Letterman’s personal habits such as cigar-smoking, though these were all contributing factors. No, the final straw turned out to be a tiny photo caption. In a short story about Leno, published around the same time as the fax poll, I wrote a caption under a benign headshot of Leno that took direct aim at Letterman, even though this was a rare story about Leno that had nothing at all to do with Letterman and the late-night ratings race. The caption, wholly unrelated to the contents of the story, read: “JAY LENO: Kicking Letterman’s butt.”
Soon thereafter came a phone call from Morty, who was shrewd enough to recognize that the caption was irrelevant to the story in which it appeared and, it seemed to him, represented a gratuitous and unfair shot at Letterman. He was right, of course, yet I doubt if I admitted it at the time. To his credit, Morty didn’t yell or scream. Instead, he invited me to negotiate a détente. There was only one problem. Morty wanted me to come to his office in the Ed Sullivan Theater building at Broadway and 53rd Street to talk about it. Feeling contrary, I refused and told him, somewhat arrogantly in retrospect, that if he wanted to talk to me, I’m easy to find. All he had to do was come down to the Post at 1211 Sixth Avenue and I would meet with him there. I didn’t tell him this, but I felt that if I went to him, he would benefit from a kind of home-field advantage and I imagined that, in those surroundings, I would feel as if I was being put on the defensive.
A short while later, I received a call from Ken Chandler. Morty had gone over my head. He had called Chandler and told the editor of the Post of my refusal to meet with him and my counter-invitation to hold our peace talks at the Post. Chandler went a step farther. He arranged an appointment for Morty to come down, accompanied by the Letterman show’s outside public-relations representative, Ken Lerer, to meet with a group of Post editors, including me. The meeting was held on Oct. 23. That same day, before it was convened and the conference room was empty, I took the last shot in our war against David Letterman, though I never told a soul about this final act.
This meeting was to be held in a conference room I knew well. It was where the editors of the Post met twice daily to discuss the day’s lineup of stories. As a participant in those meetings, the characteristics of the room were well-known to me, particularly the operations of the room’s stock of rolling office chairs and the way you could adjust their heights by turning them upside down and spinning the wheel carriage – one direction to lower the seat and the other direction to raise it. So, a short time before Morton and Lerer were to arrive for our summit meeting, I went to the conference room and turned over each of its chairs, raising every seat except one. Later, when I escorted Morty into the room, where more than a half-dozen Post editors were also gathering, I led him straight to the lowest chair in the room, and that’s where he sat for the duration of the half-hour meeting, his seat about six or eight inches lower than everybody else’s.
Why did I do it? If memory serves, I likely resented Morty going to my boss, the editor of the Post, to arrange this meeting after I refused Morty’s invitation to meet with him in his office, though, looking back, I can hardly blame Morty for doing so. If that was the reason, basically to get even with him, then it would be more than fair to characterize this chair trick as immature and spiteful. You might even say I acted like a jerk and you would be right.
The meeting turned the tide. Morty’s short chair notwithstanding, the gathering was cordial. Morty articulated his view, which he stated often in those days, that the reason for Letterman’s decline in the ratings had nothing to do with the quality of Letterman’s “Late Show.” Instead, Morty averred, Letterman’s ratings problems were due to the low ratings of the shows that aired before his – CBS’s prime-time programs and the similarly low-rated 11 p.m. newscasts on most of the CBS affiliates.
His take on the situation, in which he blamed Letterman’s lead-ins for the “Late Show’s” low ratings, was debatable. But under the circumstances, I reasoned that this meeting was not the place to debate it. When the meeting was over, we parted on friendly terms and, as a parting gift, I handed Morty a stack of 200 responses to our Letterman fax poll for him to peruse at his leisure if he so desired. And he promised that the Post TV department’s access to his show would improve. He even held out the possibility of an interview with Letterman in a few weeks, since the show was planning another out-of-town trip, this time to produce a week of shows originating from Los Angeles.
So, after all the months of conflict, our war with Letterman’s “Late Show,” a war that began all the way back in May, was over. I even got to interview Letterman on the phone in early November about his L.A. trip and the interview was so low-key and benign (not to mention almost completely lacking in news value) that I almost forgot what in the world we had been fighting about.
For his part, Letterman repeated Morty’s mantra about the decline of CBS’s prime-time shows. “Well, we’re getting clobbered,” Letterman admitted, “and we’re trying as hard as we can. I just honestly don’t know if there’s much – beyond trying to make it a decent show every night – that we can do about this situation. I mean, when we started [in 1993], CBS was, I think, usually No. 1 and now they’re usually No. 4. So we’ve had a network crumble out from under us.”
I never spoke to Letterman again. But I did briefly become the talk of the town when The New Yorker magazine got wind of the summit meeting we had held at the Post and turned it into a story for its Talk of the Town section. “Severe consequences await those who cross the Post – just ask David Letterman,” read the story’s lead sentence, published on Nov. 11, 1995. The piece then took a mere column and a half of New Yorker magazine space to chronicle our months-long battle with the Letterman show. “Will we stop beating them over the head every week on the issue of ratings?” I’m quoted as asking, rhetorically, in the story’s final paragraph. “Probably,” I evidently told the reporter, “because the story is getting old. Now, if Dave comes back, we’ll run with that. It would be another great story, and, frankly, that’s all I care about.”
THE TALK OF THE TOWN: The New Yorker, Nov. 13, 1995, “The Other Peace Talks.”
[Excerpted from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by Adam Buckman. Copyright Adam Buckman 2014 All Rights Reserved.]
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