Letterman would provide a quick, though possibly expensive, fix. A source close to the show estimates that ABC would lose $20 million in its first year with a new Dave program, which would cost more to produce than Nightline and face ratings competition from another CBS entertainment show. One TV agent disagrees: "ABC sales would have absolutely no problems selling a late-night block with Letterman."
As Letterman weighs his options, so does CBS, which means only good things for Daily Show host Jon Stewart, whose contract with Comedy Central is up in January 2003. He ranks No. 1 on most insiders' top 10 lists of possible replacements. "He could pull in the 18-to-34-year-old demo," says media analyst Anthony Mora. And it helps that both Comedy Central and CBS are divisions of Viacom. ("We don't want to deal in the hypothetical," says Stewart's rep. "At this point, it's an issue between CBS and David Letterman.") Meanwhile, Nightline hangs in the balance. Sources say that during a March 4 meeting, Disney president and COO Robert Iger assured Koppel that Nightline will stay put if the network doesn't land Letterman. As one exec put it, "We've kissed more Koppel butt in the last few days to last a lifetime."
Will CBS and Letterman come to terms? According to sources, the Letterman camp is divided on the defection. While his agents at CAA feel a move would be a mistake, Rob Burnett--a Late Show exec producer and president of Worldwide Pants--is still angry that CBS passed on the company's Ed, and believes the programming-starved ABC would be more receptive to picking up Pants-produced product. Though ABC made a case that it has younger demos in prime time, CBS has shown sharp improvement among 18- to 49-year-olds this season.
The argument for Letterman's staying is strong. "He obviously has all he needs [at CBS]," says one longtime Letterman acquaintance, noting that Pants makes more money from its other show, CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond, than NBC's Ed. "Maybe he wants to show he's still viable in the marketplace." According to a CBS insider, Letterman's demands are more about muscle than money: He'd like more vacation time (he now receives 10 weeks a year), veto power on guest hosts (which Letterman, for the first time, would permit), and the rights to program the 11:35 p.m. slot even after his retirement (a demand no network is likely to grant).
Alas, poor Dave. It was so much easier when sticking around just meant putting on a Velcro suit.