Is David Letterman destined for prime time?
There is mounting evidence that NBC is now trying to find a way to keep both Jay Leno, host of "The Tonight Show," and David Letterman at the network. One way to do that: Move Mr. Letterman to prime time.
Reports were circulating in Hollywood Wednesday that NBC was considering the creation of a Monday-through-Friday prime-time show with Mr. Letterman as host. Under such a plan, Mr. Leno could still remain as host of "The Tonight Show," while Mr. Letterman, who's made no secret of his unhappiness with his late night slot, could boost his visibility dramatically.
An NBC spokeswoman said Wednesday the network will not comment on its plans for late night. However, network sources say a possible 10 p.m. show is one of a number of scenarios under consideration designed to keep both hosts at NBC.
While NBC has until Jan. 15 to decide whether to match CBS' two-year, $28 million offer for Mr. Letterman, pressure is building at the network to come up with some sort of plan before that time.
Wednesday, Mr. Leno said in a phone interview he is "confused and upset" by NBC's indecision over whether to drop him "Tonight" host. He said he will leave the network immediately if he is replaced.
"I promise I won't be bitching and whining . . . I won't go out and cry," he said. "Whatever happens, happens, in show business . . . [but] I'm gone."
There has been some speculation in the TV world in recent weeks that NBC may be willing to dump Mr. Leno to keep Mr. Letterman, who insists his next job will be as host of an 11:30 p.m. show. But NBC has steadfastly maintained it wants to keep both.
Mr. Leno said he had a recent meeting with NBC President Robert Wright, who told him the network has not yet made up its mind. Mr. Wright could not be reached for comment.
Clearly, NBC is torn over what direction to take. Mr. Leno's ratings, while not as strong as Johnny Carson's, have increased recently while many affiliates seem to be behind the show.
"If my numbers were down and we weren't pulling our weight . . . then I should be gone," Mr. Leno said. "But the show is working out tremendously, advertisers are lining up. . . . Please don't make this critical of Dave. That's not the case. I've always reiterated that I wouldn't have it [the show] in the first place if it were not for him, and he certainly deserves everything he gets. Dave is a tremendously valuable commodity to anybody.
"But isn't it very odd for a company like G.E. [owner of NBC] to be looking at the emotional side rather than the bottom line?" Mr. Leno said. "If you're an accountant, and you don't know any of the parties, then you go: 'Here's our choice.' "
NBC apparently agrees -- to a point. Although the prime time show idea has some appeal, it also has major, perhaps insurmountable, problems. One NBC source scoffed at the idea, saying that "some people aren't sure Mr. Letterman will be successful at 11:30, much less at 10." There is also a question about whether Mr. Letterman would like to face formidable competition on other networks. Another scenario, however, also has Mr. Leno hosting such a show, while Mr. Letterman moves to "Tonight."
Also, if the prime time show falters, it could severely hurt local stations.