Prospect of Letterman's last laugh on NBC has 'em bidding in aisles

November 12, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- Call it the Dave Sweepstakes. Now that NBC "Late Night" host David Letterman is free to consider other job offers, the pitches are coming faster than one-liners.

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch recently wooed the talk-show host with a flip-card presentation extolling Fox's youth-oriented audience. CBS News anchor Connie Chung touted her network to Mr. Letterman in a spoof video.

Syndicator Michael King offered to write a $25 million check on the spot. ABC's Sam Donaldson, true to his bulldoggish reputation, went the furthest. He appeared on Mr. Letterman's show and presented his top five reasons why the comedian should defect.

Whether Mr. Letterman leaves NBC depends on his ability to wring out a world-class deal at a time of declining network profit. What it will take to pry Mr. Letterman loose from his 10-year relationship with the network is uncertain. NBC is said to be paying him $3 million-$5 million a year, considerably less than Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey and Arsenio Hall earn with their syndicated shows.

Most observers believe that Mr. Letterman is seeking $15 million- $30 million annually, an amount that would still leave room for a network or syndicator to make a profit.

Sources said Mr. Letterman -- who is angry at NBC for being passed over as host of the "Tonight Show" -- is insisting upon an 11:30 p.m. time period, because viewing levels are higher than for his 12:30 a.m. slot. As part of a long-term deal, he is also seeking assurances of creative autonomy.

The two leading contenders are believed to be CBS and Fox. Fox apparently has its eye on establishing what executives there call a "late prime" block of programming from 10:30 p.m. to 12:20 p.m. or from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. The thinking is that Mr. Letterman would be paired with Fox's upcoming Chevy Chase late-night talk show.

The CBS plan would put Mr. Letterman on at 11:30 p.m., opposite Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall in many markets.

Network programmers here are also whispering the unthinkable: that ABC, which has carved out a respected franchise with "Nightline," may decide to drop the news show because longtime anchor Ted Koppel is said to be seeking a new challenge. Under that scenario, Mr. Koppel would be given a 10 p.m. news hour twice a week for his own program. Mr. Letterman would then take the "Nightline" slot.

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