When Elvis died in 1977, one show business wag called it a "good career move," noting that a performer who had become irrelevant (or worse) in his latter years would enjoy a new surge in popularity. Sure enough, The King's records began selling again and thousands of fans flocked to his home in Memphis, making Elvis far richer in death than he ever was alive. More than 35 years after his death, Elvis's is worth an estimated $350 million--or more.
Likewise, David Letterman's retirement announcement, delivered Thursday during the taping of his TV show, is an equally smart decision. While there is no reason to believe that Letterman will soon join the ranks of the dearly departed, his decision allows the talk show host to leave CBS on his terms, and avoid being pushed out down the road.
Of course, there was no talk of such matters as Mr. Letterman began his victory lap, which will end sometime in 2015. Officially, CBS President Les Moonves has stated that Letterman could remain with "The Late Show" as long as he wants. But when the host asked for only a brief extension of his current contract, there were signs that Letterman would soon retire. Equally important, CBS was more than happy to give him only the requested extension; there was no serious effort to persuade Letterman to sign a longer deal, which would keep him in the host chair past his 70th birthday. That move suggested the network was glad to let its late-night star depart on his own terms.
You'll never get a CBS executive to admit it--at least publicly--but the network is acutely aware of its position in the 11:30 time slot. While CBS has dominated prime time ratings for more than a decade, and many of its affiliates do well in the late local news wars, Letterman has been under-performing in late night for years. What was the difference between Jay Leno and David Letterman, you ask? More than a million viewers a night (most of them in the coveted 25-54 demographic) and literally tens of millions of dollars a year in advertising revenue.
In fact, Letterman has been mired in third place for much of the last decade, trailing Leno and ABC's Nightline. Adding insult to injury, Letterman has been trailing Jay's replacement (Jimmy Fallon) by an even larger margin, and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC is virtually tied with the CBS host. (Kimmel's talk show swapped time slots with Nightline more than a year ago, with ABC sensing an opportunity to make in-roads at 11:30, particularly among younger viewers). Roughly 2.6 million viewers watch Kimmel every night, compared to 2.7 million for Letterman. Jimmy Fallon has been averaging about 4 million viewers since he took over the Tonight Show in February.
Readers will note that Letterman's ratings woes are rarely mentioned by the press and if they do make the final edit, they are tucked away towards the end of the article, or broadcast piece. That's because Dave has always been a media darling, receiving kid-glove treatment by the media, even at the lowest points in his career.
We refer, of course, to the host's 2009 admission that he had engaged in affairs with at least two young women on his staff. There was little talk about a powerful TV host using his own version of the show business casting couch, and virtually no mention that Dave made his confession barely six months after marrying long-time girlfriend Regina Lasko, the mother of his child.
In fact, Letterman was depicted as something of a victim, since the boyfriend of one the staffers tried to blackmail the host over the affair. That forced Letterman to go to the police and publicly admit his trysts, just as the news became public. Fortunately for him, the scandal broke at the same time as Tiger Woods' serial philandering entered the media cycle. Letterman's dalliances with female members of his staff--did someone say sexual harassment?---were quickly forgotten, as Woods became the scandal du jour. This side of the Kennedy clan, not many celebrities would get that kind of "special" treatment from the press.
Dave also enjoyed a close relationship with the CBS brass, despite the fact that his low ratings cost the network a fortune in advertising revenue. Mr. Moonves was effusive in his praise of the retiring host:
For 21 years, David Letterman has graced our network’s air in late night with wit, gravitas and brilliance unique in the history of our medium. During that time, Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events. He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes – including me. There is only one David Letterman. His greatness will always be remembered here, and he will certainly sit among the pantheon of this business. On a personal note, it’s been a privilege to get to know Dave and to enjoy a terrific relationship. It’s going to be tough to say goodbye. Fortunately, we won’t have to do that for another year or so. Until then, we look forward to celebrating Dave’s remarkable show and incredible talents.”
That was quite a contrast from Letterman's NBC days, when he fought running battles with the suits. In fact, one reason that Leno wound up with the Tonight Show is because of his better relations with network executives, though some still believed that Letterman was the better choice. When NBC asked for a favor--like introducing the network's fall schedule, or cutting a promo for a local station, Leno always volunteered, while Dave often balked.
At CBS, Letterman alienated a more important constituency--large segments of his audience. The host seemed to relish going after conservatives, stating that Vice President Dick Cheney was "reluctant" to go after Osama bin Laden, because the terrorist leader was supposedly hiding in Saudi Arabia, and that might upset the ruling family. He also made tasteless attacks on Sarah Palin's daughter and during the most recent presidential campaign, chided Mitt Romney for his wealth. There was no small amount of irony in that, since many estimates place Letterman's personal fortune (somewhere north of $400 million) well above that of the former GOP candidate.
To be fair, other late night hosts are decidedly liberal as well, but unlike Letterman, Jay Leno could interview conservatives without being mean or snarky. During the final weeks, he scored some of his highest ratings with an appearance by former President George W. Bush, who presented Leno with an oil portrait, painted by Mr. Bush. And just last week, Jimmy Fallon (doing his impression of Vladimir Putin) did a very funny bit with former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Letterman preferred to play to his viewers in Manhattan and on the west coast, and he paid the price, ratings-wise. Much of middle America had abandoned Letterman long before he announced his retirement.
Most observers believe the departing host will all-but-disappear in retirement, much like his idol, Johnny Carson. Perhaps that's just as well; the evolution of David Letterman has been a once-brilliant talent morphing into a cranky, condescending old man who was loved by the media, the most powerful executives at CBS, and very few others. More importantly, his successful career will always have an asterisk as well--the heir apparent who never got the Tonight Show. And deservedly so.