Despite the new network, Dave needs an affiliate his show can call home

June 25, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

David Letterman is getting closer to finding a home for his new show in Baltimore and Washington.

A breakthrough this week in a six-month standoff between CBS and affiliates could enable viewers to see the new "Late Show With David Letterman" on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) and WUSA-TV (Channel 9) when it debuts Aug. 30.

According to Emerson Coleman, director of broadcast operations at WBAL-TV, CBS has agreed to let WBAL-TV, WUSA-TV in Washington and several other CBS affiliates temporarily broadcast the new show at 12:35 a.m., following the "Arsenio Hall Show."

CBS, which previously said it would never allow such an arrangement, declined to confirm the offer yesterday. WUSA-TV executives did not return phone calls.

"A number of things have happened since we [CBS and WBAL] first talked, and perhaps we all have more reasonable heads. . . . But they have gotten back to us now and said 12:35 would be acceptable," Mr. Coleman said. "Before CBS made that offer, it was not possible for us to carry Letterman. Now I'm optimistic something can be worked out. . . . How optimistic? I think there's a 50-50 chance."

"The Baltimore situation still has not been resolved," said Beth Comstock, CBS' director of publicity. "It's still being negotiated."

Since January, when Letterman's move from NBC was announced, the CBS position has been that affiliates could not carry the show later than 11:35 p.m. EDT, following late local news. Letterman was, after all, moving in part because he wanted the earlier time period.

There is also the matter of advertising revenue, based on how many markets the show is carried in and at what time. In general, the earlier the hour in late night, the higher the ad rate.

The day after CBS announced Letterman's signing, however, WBAL and other affiliates said they had contractual commitments to syndicated shows and would not carry Letterman at all if they could only broadcast his show at 11:35 p.m. In the case of WBAL and WUSA, the commitment was to Paramount, which produces the "Arsenio Hall Show." Both stations said they were committed to Hall through Dec. 31, 1993, and that Hall was doing very well in the ratings.

CBS executives had predicted in January that the affiliates would come around by spring, but this did not happen.

CBS subsequently went to independent stations in the markets of recalcitrant affiliates to explore the possibility of having them carry Letterman. In Baltimore, CBS approached WNUV-TV (Channel 54). But the independent stations did not sit up and beg either.

"We're not sure we want to take Letterman," Joe Koff, the general manager of Channel 54, said last week when asked about the negotiations. "You know, 'In the Heat of the Night' does very well for us [in reruns at 11:30 p.m.], and I think it could do even better in the fall when it is one of the only non-talk-show alternatives in Baltimore."

The response from independent stations drove CBS back into the arms of its affiliates, allowing them to temporarily delay Letterman until 12:35 a.m. -- the same time period he had on NBC.

The key word is temporarily. According to Coleman, the deal is that when WBAL's contract with Paramount and Hall expires Dec. 31, Letterman gets the 11:35 p.m. time period here. The likely scenario then is that Channel 11 will flip the two shows starting Jan. 1 -- with Letterman at 11:35, followed by Hall.

A happy ending to the Letterman story in Baltimore, though, is still not guaranteed. The last major sticking point is the extent to which CBS will help WBAL get out of commitments to other syndicators for shows scheduled to air weeknights at 12:35 after Arsenio Hall this fall.

"We are currently making proposals [to those syndicators] to try and make Letterman happen [at 12:35]," Coleman said. "Again, I'm optimistic. And we want to make it happen for our viewers.

"It would be great to be on board Aug. 30," he said. "But we'll have to wait and see."

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