Yesterday, at what was definitely the 11th hour for such a deal, CBS and WNUV-Channel 54 signed a one-year contract for the independent station to carry Letterman live at 11:35 weeknights.
"We're thrilled that it worked out so that we can now bring Letterman to Baltimore viewers," says Joe Koff, general manager of Channel 54.
"It's a pretty straightforward deal," Koff says. "It's a one-year agreement, and we think it's a good one for us."
CBS spokesman Jim Byrne confirmed the deal with Channel 54, but declined comment beyond saying it means Letterman will be car- ried live in Baltimore.
WBAL-Channel 11, the CBS affiliate that refused to bump the syndicated "Arsenio Hall Show" to carry Letterman, also confirmed the agreement between its network and rival Channel 54 yesterday.
"We're very pleased that people in Baltimore will be able to see the Letterman show . . . until it moves to the CBS affiliate at a point over the next year," says Channel 11 station manager Joe Heston.
But sources at CBS say it is not a sure thing that Letterman will be on Channel 11 in the fall of 1994. Or ever for that matter.
Earlier, Channel 54 had said it was not interested in carrying Letterman's new show if it meant that Channel 11 could claim it whenever it wanted, because of its status as a CBS affiliate.
The one-year contract announced yesterday is a concession on the part of CBS, and it cuts Channel 11 out of the equation for the next 13 months.
CBS Group President Howard Stringer had expressed his displeasure last week at the way negotiations between the network and its Baltimore affiliate have gone since January, when CBS announced the Letterman signing. Mr. Stringer was especially unhappy about Channel 11 pre-empting CBS' promotional spots for Letterman.
Three weeks ago, CBS launched the biggest promotional campaign for an entertainment show in its history on behalf of Letterman. The campaign consists of more than 80 different commercials, many of them very clever. But none have aired in Baltimore, because of the fight between the network and its affiliate. The spots will begin airing immediately on Channel 54, says program director Bruce Binenfeld.
The situation for Letterman fans in Baltimore reached its low point last week. That's when Mr. Stringer said it looked as if Letterman was not going to be on anywhere in Baltimore and only those fans who received independent station WDCA-Channel 20 in Washington would be able to see Letterman.
Putting the show on an independent instead of its affiliate is not the best of all possible worlds for CBS. Channel 54's signal is not as powerful as Channel 11's. And it is harder to build brand loyalty for other CBS shows on Channel 11 when viewers are directed to a rival.
But CBS never imagined last January that things would go as badly with recalcitrant affiliates as they have with Letterman's show. With fewer than two-thirds of its affiliates agreeing to carry Letterman live starting Aug. 30, the network had to make the embarrassing admission last week that Letterman could not possibly beat Jay Leno this year in the highly publicized "late-night wars."
In making deals like the one yesterday with Channel 54, CBS is in the position of having to create a new network of stations to carry its $14-million-a-year superstar.
But it's good news for Channel 54, which has taken on a new stature in the market this summer by becoming a player in the negotiations to carry Baltimore Orioles' baseball games. The Letterman deal will only increase the station's visibility, especially as the excitement builds next month to Letterman's debut.
"We think there's a groundswell of support for Letterman here," Koff says.
"We think his audience is so loyal that it will give us a chance to expose Channel 54 to some viewers who otherwise might not see us."