CBS has offered late-night talk-show host David Letterman a two-year, $28 million contract if he'll jump from NBC -- a deal that would make him one of the highest-paid stars in television.
Under the deal, the irreverent Mr. Letterman would butt heads with Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" in the 11:30 p.m. slot he has openly coveted.
NBC has until Jan. 15 to match or better the offer.
The New York Times reported today that Mr. Letterman had accepted the offer. A representative of Mr. Letterman's agency, Creative Artists Agency, refused to comment. Mr. Letterman and Mr. Leno did not return calls.
Mr. Letterman reportedly earns $7 million a year now. His contract with NBC expires next summer.
Mr. Letterman -- still fuming after NBC bypassed him for the "Tonight Show" seat when late-night legend Johnny Carson retired in May -- now follows Mr. Leno's show at 12:30 a.m.
Mr. Leno reportedly pulls in $3 million a year.
At his height, Mr. Carson raked in $15 million a year.
"We received an offer [from CBS] on Monday, and the formal negotiating with Letterman has begun," NBC spokeswoman )R Betty Hudson said yesterday. "We'll have no further comment until the process is concluded."
ABC dropped out of the bidding war because it is committed to Ted Koppel and his "Nightline" news program in that time slot.
The CBS offer also would let Mr. Letterman produce his show and would give him a lavish personal compensation package, industry experts said.
There was speculation that if he jumped ship, Mr. Letterman would further cripple NBC by taking key "Late Night" personnel, including popular musical director Paul Shaffer, executive producer Peter Lassally -- who was Carson's long-time producer -- and co-producer Bob Morton.
The CBS offer follows an agreement NBC forced last month in a last-ditch effort to keep Mr. Letterman by allowing him to negotiate openly with suitors in exchange for extending his contract three months, until June 25.
The deal gives NBC right of first refusal on any competing offers.
"Saturday Night Live" star Dana Carvey is most often mentioned as Letterman's replacement.
"NBC would be crazy to lose David Letterman," said one network executive who asked not to be named. "The Tonight Show" has && dropped 6 percent in the ratings since Mr. Leno took over. WMAR-TV (Channel 2) airs both the Letterman and Leno shows in Baltimore.
The move also could cut into the audience for Arsenio Hall's syndicated late-night talk show, which appears in this area on WBAL-TV, Channel 11, at 11:30 p.m. and appeals to a younger audience.