Letterman jumps, but not all local stations happy

January 15, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- NBC made if official here yesterday: The network will not match a CBS offer, and David Letterman is free to join the rival network June 25, when his contract expires.

"We had hoped to find a way to keep both Jay Leno and David Letterman," said Warren Littlefield, NBC entertainment president, at a press conference yesterday that featured Leno arriving at a ballroom at the Santa Monica Loews Hotel on a motorcycle. "But in the end, David Letterman was only interested in the 11:30 time period, and we already had a terrific host."

Letterman will stay on the air on NBC until his contract expires. "I don't think putting him on ice is a good strategy," Littlefield said.

CBS won the bidding battle with its offer of four years at $14 million a year and the 11:30 p.m. time slot, but now it must start the real war of getting its affiliates, such as WBAL (Channel 11) in Baltimore, to carry Letterman's new show at 11:30 so the network can make enough money to pay for its new star.

Jeff Sagansky, CBS president, predicted earlier this week that virtually all 218 CBS affiliates would carry Letterman at 11:30 when the show is launched on CBS, perhaps as early as July.

But preliminary indications are that Sagansky is wrong. More than 40 CBS affiliates across the country, including Channel 11, carry "The Arsenio Hall Show" in syndication -- many at 11:30 weeknights.

Yesterday, Joe Heston, station manager at Channel 11, said the station is happy with Hall's show and that the station might decide to stay with him at 11:30 and delay Letterman's show until 12:30 a.m. Channel 11's contract with Paramount, the studio that syndicates "The Arsenio Hall Show," runs through December 1993 and stipulates that Channel 11 must carry Hall at 11:30.

Managers at other CBS affiliates echo Heston's sentiments. WUSA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Washington, also has a contract with Paramount to broadcast Hall's show at 11:30 p.m. That contract runs through 1994.

"We are real pleased with Arsenio Hall in ratings and demographics, as well as with our relationship with both Arsenio and Paramount," said Sandra Butler-Jones, vice president for broadcasting operations at WUSA (Channel 9). "There is no compelling reason for us to change programming from Arsenio to Letterman."

One compelling reason not to run Letterman is that stations, such as WBAL and WUSA, might have to pay "damages" to Paramount for not running Hall at 11:30 p.m. Furthermore, they might lose considerable advertising revenue by going with Letterman.

In cities like Baltimore and Washington, "The Arsenio Hall Show" is a money maker for the local station that carries it. First, with a syndicated show, a station gets to keep all the ad dollars it receives when it broadcasts the show, minus what it costs to buy the show. With Hall, that means a station gets about 50 percent of the revenue. Network compensation, on the other hand, breaks down to only about 25 percent.

Furthermore, Hall's show earns the highest ad rates of any show from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. in Baltimore.

According to Nielsen ratings for November, "The Arsenio Hall Show" tied with Jay Leno and "The Tonight Show" for second place, finishing behind Ted Koppel's "Nightline" by two ratings points. But Hall's show was No. 1 with men and women 18 to 49 years old, the demographics advertisers desire the most.

While Hall attracts a diverse audience, he does especially well in cities with large African-American populations, such as Baltimore, which has the highest percentage of black viewers of any Top 25 TV market in the country.

And Letterman does not do very well in Baltimore. In fact, in November, he finished second to last in the market during his 12:30 time period.

But Emerson Coleman, the program director at Channel 11, said yesterday that he believes those ratings are not necessarily indicative of what Letterman could do at 11:30 on Channel 11.

"If Letterman is moved up to a new time period on a new station -- with all the attention he's receiving and promotion he would be given -- his performance is likely to improve," Coleman said.

He supported that claim with overnight ratings from Wednesday that showed Letterman with a 5.0 rating and 19 share in Baltimore, up considerably from the 3.0 rating and 13 share he averaged in November. Coleman attributed the audience increase directly to all the interest and publicity surrounding Letterman's contract negotiations.

Coleman called choosing between Letterman and Hall "the quintessential programming dilemma. Some people are going to happy, and some unhappy, no matter who you choose."

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