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Why David Letterman’s Exit Won’t Hurt CBS

Why David Letterman's Exit Won't Hurt CBS

The day had to come, when late-night TV king David Letterman walked off into the sunset.

Now that Letterman has announce his intention to retire sometime next year, CBS has the task of finding a successor. It will be a challenge but not a burden.

Yes, Letterman is the sachem of late night TV — but that also implies that he is the industry’s elder statesman, an uncomfortable crown. Now, CBS chief Leslie Moonves has the opportunity to re-make the network, something Moonves does with relish. 

When Charlie Sheen self-destructed and threatened to destroy the network’s highly lucrative “Two and a Half Men” sit-com, Moonves engineered the arrival of Ashton Kutcher. he show hardly missed a beat. When Dan Rather had to be replaced, Moonves recruited Katie Couric. That didn’t work out so well so it was on to CBS veteran Scott Pelley to take her place on Moonves’ merry-go-round. 

What will Moonves do?

Likely, he will follow Lorne Michaels’ dictum at “Saturday Night Live:” When in doubt, go young.

Moonves has to respect the digital popularity of NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, Fallon has rewritten the rule book on late-night hosts. Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett thrived on dry wit. Carson personified longevity and consistency. But Fallon has made his reputation on being unpredictable.

He will seek someone who has a special niche on social media. Fallon has done well to publicize his show by becoming a fixture on Facebook and Twitter. He seems to “trend” every day with some joke, spoof or routine. CBS has to pay attention to social media.

Further, CBS needs to tap someone who can likely stay in the job for a long time. Letterman served for two decades, and stability is essential in this job because the viewers tend to settle on one host and not do a lot of flipping (thank you, Larry Sanders).

Look for Moonves not to seek a Letterman clone. The next host will probably be more of an out and out comic and not a comic/pundit, like Dave has morphed into over the years. His successor must be someone capable of amassing big TV ratings. It will be important for CBS to challenge Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel.

You can bet that Moonves won’t name someone named Jimmy to take Letterman’s place. 

Letterman has staked his reputation on quirky, edgy interviews, the nightly Top Ten List and such gags as Stupid Pet Trick. He seldom topped rival Jay Leno when Leno hosted NBC’s Tonight Show. But Letterman offered such a special degree of prestige and gravitas that Moonves could look the other way at the ratings shortfall.

Sure, Letterman, one of a kind, will be missed. But not for long.

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