It's more (baby) boom for the buck as Dave makes his debut

TELEVISION REVIEW

August 30, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"It's really all about baby boomers," says Howard Stringer, the group president of CBS. "Baby boomers love Dave. He's their man."

Stringer is the man who ultimately decided that David Letterman was worth $14 million a year to CBS after NBC had passed over the 46-year-old comedian for Jay Leno to fill Johnny Carson's old job. And Stringer's explanation of Letterman's appeal to CBS is the place to start in trying to understand the sense of excitement today about the debut of Letterman's new show at 11:35 p.m. on WNUV (Channel 54).

How did it happen that the most important question of the summer of '93 seems to be whether Letterman will be able to use his Top 10 lists and Stupid Pet Tricks schtick on CBS rather than, say, whether Clinton's budget will actually help get us out of deficit trouble?

How many stories do we really need saying that "Dave seems confident as he enters the late-night wars"?

How did Letterman go from being just another late-night comedian and host to becoming such a big deal?

The answer in part is that loving Letterman is mainly a baby boomer-guy kind of thing, to use the language of Arsenio Hall, rTC one of Letterman's competitors in late-night. And baby-boomer guys are the ones writing most of the previews, columns and analyses that say Letterman's move to CBS is a cosmic event.

The Nielsen ratings say Letterman's largest following is far and away white men in their 30s and 40s. He doesn't do very well, for example, with women and African-American viewers.

"I think there is something about all the interest in Letterman and how men that age have come to relate to him," says Lawrence Mintz, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park. Mintz's expertise is in popular culture, specifically American humor.

"Letterman's appeal is probably connected with the whole sense of I-don't-want-to-grow-up for some of them," Mintz says.

In other words, middle-age guys can still be boys watching Letterman. They can live vicariously through him. They can drool over Teri Garr with him. They can feel like they haven't become total corporate toadies in their own lives by laughing when Letterman mocks his former bosses, the "fine, fine folks at NBC." In short, if Letterman's hip, and they're into Letterman, then they're still hip.

Mintz says Letterman isn't the first comedian or talk-show host to have played this role. Mintz believes Carson played the same role in the minds of the previous generation of white men. Carson tweaked his corporate bosses, too, in his monologues. With his martinis, all those blonds on his couch and the highly publicized divorces, Carson was that generation's idea of white, male hipness.

What matters to CBS in 1993, though, is that Letterman -- not Jay Leno or anyone else -- is the talk-show host baby-boomer men connect with. The entire corporate strategy at CBS is aimed at being the baby boomers' network.

In that sense, Letterman and CBS are a perfect fit and together they are working every baby boomer angle they can.

Letterman's new home, the refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater, is hallowed ground to baby boomers. It's been described in CBS press releases and virtually every story about Letterman's new show as the place where "Elvis and the Beatles made their American TV debut."

Elvis didn't really make his American TV debut on the "Ed Sullivan Show." But what has such a fact got to do with baby-boomer mythology? The TV debuts of Elvis and the Beatles are two landmark events on the baby-boomer lifeline, and Stringer was smart enough to know that the whopping $8 million it cost to renovate the theater was peanuts compared to the psychic link it would help reinforce between Letterman's show and the sense of a big event in the minds of some.

Letterman and his producers calibrate their major moves just as carefully. What could be more perfect than Letterman's old show ending with Bruce Springsteen singing "Glory Days," the anthem of middle-age guys?

Letterman's debut is also a big TV story for other reasons, of course.

There is about $670 million at stake in late-night, and newcomers, like Chevy Chase and Conan O'Brien, are joining the fight to earn some of it. That's noteworthy.

But Letterman isn't as important as Leno is in that story. Leno, who makes only $3 million a year, is going to beat Letterman in the ratings and make more money for his bosses than Letterman will for CBS. Even CBS admits that.

CBS is promising advertisers Letterman will earn a 4.1 rating or an audience of about 3.8 million this year. Leno's rating is 4.6 or about 4.25 million viewers.

That, in turn, is part of another big TV story -- one-third of CBS' affiliates, including WBAL (Channel 11) in Baltimore and WUSA (Channel 9) in Washington, are refusing to carry Letterman live.

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