Somewhere along the way, David Letterman morphed from a funny and inventive comic into a sour, mean-spirited old man. Maybe it was the heart surgery, or maybe it was eight years of George W. Bush in the White House. Whatever the reason, Mr. Letterman has grown increasingly testy on the air, particularly toward conservatives.
Cranky Dave was on display again Monday night, during his interview with Katie Couric. While the talk show host was gracious and polite toward his CBS colleague, he was vicious in discussing Rush Limbaugh. Brent Baker recounts the relevant portion of that segment:
DAVID LETTERMAN: What about this bonehead Rush Limbaugh? Honest to God, I mean what is going on there?
KATIE COURIC: Dave, don't do this to me, please! Don't do this to me.
LETTERMAN: He gets up in Washington and he's the keynote speaker at some function, and he comes up, he looks like an Eastern European gangster. You know, he's got the black jacket on, the black silk shirt and it's unbuttoned, like, “oh yeah, when you think Rush Limbaugh, you think ooh let's see a little flesh.” [audience laughter] Honestly, you know, what is he doing?
COURIC: On a serious note, although I'm thrown by the Rush Limbaugh flesh in one sentence, but I think it's sort of indicative of this power vacuum that exists right now in the Republican party...
It's tempting to ask if Dave's looked in the mirror lately. With that bad hair piece he insists on wearing, Mr. Letterman isn't exactly a matinee idol.
But there may be another reason that Dave took a shot at Rush (besides his blatant liberalism). Like all TV personalities, Letterman lives and dies by his ratings. And Dave's been in something of a slump over the past year; he finished the third quarter of 2008 in last place, trailing both Jay Leno on NBC and ABC's Nightline.
On a good night, Letterman attracts just over three million viewers. On a bad night, the number is closer to two million. Meanwhile, Rush's radio audience is as big--and as loyal--as ever. During any given week, Mr. Limbaugh attracts between 16 and 20 million listeners. In other words, Rush's audience is a third larger than Letterman's, and he achieves those numbers without the promotion push--and audience lead-in--provided by the CBS Television Network, which has ruled prime time for the last decade.
And if that weren't enough, Limbaugh proved that he's a major draw outside his primary medium. Ratings data from Nielsen indicate that Rush's CPAC speech--delivered at 5 p.m. eastern on a Saturday afternoon, drew a staggering audience, at least by cable standards. Fox News Channel attracted an estimated 2.4 million viewers during the five o'clock hour, while CNN (also live from CPAC) registered 900,000 more. Collectively, the combined cable viewership for Rush's address surpassed a typical audience for Letterman's talk show.
Oh, and did we mention that audience levels for cable outlets on Saturday afternoons are normally a fraction of what Rush pulled in? Put another way, the Limbaugh speech attracted millions of viewers who (otherwise) would have watched other programs, or been engaged in other pursuits.
Letterman could certainly use the same sort of passion and loyalty from his audience at 11:35. Last year's ratings drop was the most dramatic since Dave has been at CBS, and it wasn't lost on network executives. They're paying him $30 million a year for a program that is steadily losing audience to Nightline, a program assumed to be on its last legs when Ted Koppel retired.
For now, Letterman's future seems to be secure He's always been a critical favorite, and there are plenty of show business types (and TV execs) who shamelessly court the talk show host. But at some point, CBS is going to get tired of paying that much money to a cranky host whose favorite routines ("Does it Float?") were stale a decade ago.
Almost 40 years ago, the network faced a similar decision. After installing Merv Griffin in late night to compete against Johnny Carson, CBS discovered it had made a terrible mistake. Merv was sent packing and the network replaced his show with old movies and TV reruns. It wasn't critically acclaimed or even original, but the reruns filled the 11:30 slot for almost 20 years, and turned a tidy profit for CBS, which paid peanuts for the programming.
Letterman and his network are now hoping that NBC's changing-of-the-guard will give them a new lease on life. Conan O'Brien takes over the Tonight Show in a few months, with Jay Leno moving to prime time. Amid that shuffle, CBS hopes to siphon viewers away from NBC, and give Letterman a boost.
There's only one problem with that plan. Folks deciding to "sample" Letterman will find the same, grouchy host who's alienated many of his viewers. "Prickly Dave" will be anything but a ratings magnet, and he'll send many of those viewers back to ABC and NBC. At that point, it will be a matter of how much CBS is willing to pay for a failing talk show.
Meanwhile, Rush just keeps sailing along. He leads the ratings in most major markets, even beating the most popular FM music stations. No wonder he received the richest contract in broadcasting history--another development that must make Dave just a bit jealous. In fact, there's every reason to believe that El Rushbo will remain a dominant force in media for years to come, long after the last edition of "Stupid Pet Tricks."