Baltimore, D.C. local affiliates still vexing CBS TURNED ON IN LA. -- Fall Preview

July 20, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- With David Letterman's CBS debut six weeks away and only about two-thirds of the network's affiliates across the country signed on to carry him live, CBS executives are finally starting to admit that things haven't gone exactly as planned since they signed Letterman in January for three years at $42 million.

"We're handicapped by clearances," says David Poltrack, CBS senior vice president for research, using the TV industry term for agreements from affiliates to carry a network show.

And, according to CBS' top brass, the two toughest clearance problems are affiliates WBAL-TV (Channel 11) in Baltimore and WUSA-TV (Channel 9) in Washington.

After months of back-and-forth, CBS Group President Howard Stringer says viewers in Baltimore will not be able to see Letterman when his show debuts Aug. 30.

The reason: WBAL will not agree to carry Letterman before midnight and CBS has been unable to find an independent station in Baltimore to broadcast the show, according to Stringer.

"What about Baltimore? You tell me," Stringer says. "I don't think viewers there yet understand that Letterman is not going to be on anywhere in Baltimore, nor has the station had to deal with what that brings."

WUSA-TV is not going to carry Letterman either, but CBS has a deal with independent station WDCA-TV to carry the show in that market, Stringer says. Baltimore viewers who get WDCA-TV (Channel 20) can, of course, watch Letterman.

But WDCA is not on Baltimore cable systems, and over-the-air reception of the channel is weak for most viewers in the area.

Stringer says he was in Washington last week working on a last-minute deal with WUSA.

"Washington's the biggest affiliate market not on board, and we're still trying to work some kind of a miracle there to get Dave on," Stringer says.

"You know, the staff at WUSA is all baby boomers and loves Dave and is going to be watching the show when it's fed. . . . "But, as of now, their viewers will have to see it on WDCA."

As a result of stations like WBAL-TV and WUSA-TV refusing to carry Letterman, Poltrack says, Letterman will not win his time period this year.

"By Year Two, though, we believe that the best man will win, and that man will be Dave," Poltrack says.

But what that means for Year One is that despite the largest promotional campaign in its history and Letterman's huge salary, CBS is going to be eating the dust of Jay Leno and NBC's "Tonight" show for the next 12 months.

Initially, CBS simply underestimated the independence of its affiliates.

The day after the heavily publicized signing of Letterman, several affiliates said in newspaper reports that they were not going to carry Letterman because they had commitments to syndicated shows starting at 11:35 p.m., after late local news. Most of the commitments were to Arsenio Hall and powerful Paramount, which produces and syndicates Hall.

At the time, CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky dismissed the stories, saying the affiliates would "come around" by summer. Stringer said much the same, adding that the network might have to do a little "arm-twisting."

When the arm-twisting failed, CBS bent a little in June, saying that certain stations with commitments at 11:35 could delay Letterman until 12:05.

That brought such large markets as Atlanta and Detroit into the fold. But not markets like Baltimore and Washington, where the affiliates are committed to carrying Arsenio Hall at 11:35 and must pay penalties to Paramount if they do not.

"We understand their situation," Stringer says of the recalcitrant affiliates. "It's a matter of money, quite a bit of money.

"Our affiliates had to go out and make their own deals in the past. We had a Death Valley at 11:30. . . . But now we have Dave, and we need to work together."

Stringer says he does not consider it working together that WBAL, for example, blocked all Letterman promotions in Baltimore during last week's telecast of the All-Star Game.

"We were all in Baltimore for the game, looking for the promotions and they weren't on," he says. "We thought, hey, maybe we should simply interrupt the game right while something important is happening to show Dave's spots. S-- them [WBAL]."

WBAL Vice President Joe Heston says the station "wants to be supportive" of the network. "But, as of now, Letterman is not going to be on in Baltimore," Heston says.

The only way that will change, according to Heston, is if CBS lets WBAL delay Letterman until 12:35, the time his old show ran on NBC.

"WUSA has no comment on the Letterman situation at this time," says Barbara Ware, a spokeswoman for the station. According to CBS, WUSA also wants to delay Letterman until 12:35.

CBS has put together more than 80 promotional ads as part of its huge campaign for Letterman, according to George Schweitzer, senior vice president for marketing. They're all using the theme: "Same Dave. Better time. New station."

But in Baltimore, Washington and elsewhere, come Aug. 30, it's going to be: No Dave.

And that means a rocky and costly launch for the most expensive new show on network TV this year.

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