David Letterman: New Dave Dawning

After 11 years, David Letterman is the man of the hour in late night. Now if he can only learn to enjoy it.

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Letterman's second coming in late night has set off a high-stakes scramble. A week after his debut, Chevy Chase will launch his own talk show on the Fox network. A week after that, Conan O'Brien, the tousle-haired comedy writer plucked from obscurity by producer Lorne Michaels, will try to fill Letterman's old chair on NBC. Leno, feeling the competitive heat, has had his mug plastered on billboards around the country, while Arsenio Hall, despite slipping ratings, is still a hip-hop force to reckon with. Add to that Ted Koppel's sturdy (and frequently top-rated) Nightline and wild cards like Rush Limbaugh, and you have the most hotly contested, creatively bustling time period in television. "Late night," says Leno, "is just about the only place on network TV where anything interesting is happening. It's almost the new prime time."

All of it is revolving around Letterman. His new TV incarnation represents more than just a change of networks and an earlier bedtime; it marks the ascendance of a new generation. When Late Night with David Letterman made its debut on NBC in 1982, it was the prankish outsider, a subversive send-up of talk shows, television, the entertainment world in general. Letterman refused to fawn over guests; with the help of Vegas-obsessed bandleader Paul Shaffer, he took deadpan aim at show-biz phoniness. He griped about his NBC bosses, turned stagehands into stars, conducted elevator races in the hallway. His medium-twisting inventiveness was influenced by Ernie Kovacs, his man-on-the- street playfulness by Steve Allen. But Letterman seasoned them with his own sardonic, cranky, cooler-than-cool personality. For a young generation of viewers bored with television's formula and fakery, Letterman was fresh, liberating, indispensable.

The TV question of the moment is whether Letterman's offbeat, sometimes abrasive style will work at 11:30, where the mainstream audience is more accustomed to the enthusiasm that Carson (and now Leno) brought to the job of helping celebrities promote their new movies. Industry prognosticators are cautious, if not downright skeptical. Leno, inheritor of the powerful Tonight franchise, is generally regarded as the front runner, if only because Letterman's show will have a weaker station lineup: more than 30% of CBS affiliates will be delaying his program by half an hour or more to make room for syndicated fare. CBS is projecting that Letterman will average a 4 rating -- a big jump over its current ratings, though still behind Leno's (who averaged 4.6 last season). Some advertising gurus think even that is too optimistic. After an initial burst of curiosity tune-in, predicts Gene DeWitt, president of a New York City media management firm, the audience will drift back to Leno. "CBS's audience seems to skew a bit older ((than Letterman's)). It's kind of like putting a SoHo comedian into the Fontainebleau hotel."

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