The Rush Is On : Limbaugh Talks His Way to No. 3 in Late Night


The dramatic graphic appeared on TV screens across the nation last week with an urgent message: “America Held Hostage, Day One.”

A news flash? No. The imitation network news graphic, with 1960s images of the White House, peace signs and a couple smoking dope, was merely Rush Limbaugh’s comic, conservative take on America’s new President.

“This show, taking its cue from ‘Nightline,’ will be here every night for this crisis,” Limbaugh said solemnly, but with tongue firmly in cheek, from the stately, wood-paneled set of his syndicated series. Unashamed self-promoter that he is, he was surrounded by shelves stacked high with prominently displayed copies of his book, “The Way Things Ought to Be,” currently the No. 1 nonfiction title on the New York Times bestseller list.


The TV series hasn’t achieved the stature of Limbaugh’s book or hugely successful radio show yet, but there is every reason to believe that it will indeed be around for the next four years to tweak and critique the Clinton Administration. In just four months on the air, it has climbed into the No. 3 slot in the late-night arena, behind “Nightline” and “The Tonight Show” but ahead of “Late Night With David Letterman” and “The Arsenio Hall Show.”

“By all indications, he’s going to grow stronger, especially now with a Democrat in the White House. Now he has unlimited targets,” observed Dick Kurlander, programming vice president for Petry Television, which consults a group of 115 TV stations on what programming to buy.

“We recommended him this time last year to our stations, solely on the strength of Rush,” Kurlander said. “We always believed it was an easy call. To us it was a no-brainer that he was going to succeed. Just look at his track record and the pure ratings he receives in radio.”

Limbaugh has been the most listened-to radio personality in the country--currently on 560 radio stations--for nearly three years through his syndicated radio show, which airs in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KFI-AM (640).

“That dwarfs any comparison,” Limbaugh said. “I’ve redefined how radio happens. And critics still say: He’s a radio right-winger, he’s a fluke, he’s not going to last.”

According to the fall Arbitron ratings, an average of 192,200 people were listening to “The Rush Limbaugh Show” during any 15-minute period on KFI--more than any other radio program, at any time of day, on any of the 86 signals broadcast in metropolitan Los Angeles. That includes morning-radio leader Howard Stern on KLSX-FM (97.1).

And now there’s his unconventional television show: No guests. A few graphics and clips. Mostly Limbaugh talking to the camera.

During the recent hubbub of late-night television press coverage--focusing on where David Letterman would go and how that would affect Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall--few media reporters and critics seemed to notice the dramatic ratings success of Limbaugh’s half-hour.

“It’s nothing new, to be overlooked,” said Limbaugh, who believes that members of the mainstream press don’t agree with his politics, therefore don’t watch his show and simply forget he’s there.

“The show has a political point of view foreign to most in the entertainment community, and that would include those in the entertainment press,” Limbaugh said drolly.

Then he raised his voice to a crescendo: “But hell, the people know. The viewers know, and that’s my audience anyway. There are a tremendous number of people out there who feel their beliefs are not being given a fair representation in the media. Here comes my show speaking directly to issues they care dearly about.”

During the November ratings sweeps, an average of 3 million households tuned in to watch Limbaugh each day, compared to 2.7 million for Hall and 2.5 million for Letterman. That was election month, when political interest was high. Since then, Limbaugh’s ratings have continued to climb. He now has 3.3 million homes watching daily.

“The fact that Rush launched with the presidential race going on was coincidental,” said senior producer Dick Mincer, who spent several years as a producer on “Donahue.” “The fact that the race is over, we’re almost through January and his ratings have actually increased since the November book, shows his staying power. We knew he had it in radio, but there were questions in some camps whether that would translate to television.”

Limbaugh has turned out to be the only genuine hit of all the first-run syndicated shows introduced last fall. Late-night competitor Whoopi Goldberg will probably be around next season, but over the season her ratings trended downward while Limbaugh’s shot upward.

That’s because the show is getting better, Limbaugh said. Initially, he wasn’t comfortable with the format. Sitting in an intimate, private sound booth behind a microphone is nothing like sitting in a hot, bright TV studio before a glaring camera lens and studio audience.

At first, Limbaugh said, “I hated it. I hated the adjustment. I hated me. I didn’t think I was any good. I was mad at myself for not being able to be myself. I went out there and froze up. I didn’t relax and let what I felt flow through me. It was the adjustment, the pressure. I was just trying too hard.”

Since the Christmas break, however, Limbaugh feels he and his staff have nailed the show, finding ways to bring in more graphics, news clippings and video footage for Limbaugh to play off--such as last week’s sentence-by-sentence analysis of Clinton’s inaugural address.

For another TV gag last week, Limbaugh showed his studio audience--a clapping sea of blue blazers and dress suits--a videotape segment in which Mr. Rogers presented the President with a red toy Neighborhood Trolley from his children’s show. Then Limbaugh turned to the camera: “You know what that trolley symbolizes? Anyone who watches the show knows that trolley takes you to the land of make-believe.”

“Radio is a one-man show,” Limbaugh said. “I don’t need to talk to anybody about what I do. I had to learn to communicate my instincts to a TV staff.”

In Los Angeles, Limbaugh airs twice a day on KCOP-TV Channel 13 at 1 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. During the daytime, he receives a 3 rating on average (each rating point represents 49,657 homes) against two established powerhouses: Oprah Winfrey (with an 8 rating) and Phil Donahue (with a 4 rating).

“He’s holding his own in a very, very difficult time period,” said KCOP station manager Rick Feldman, who expressed regret that he does not have a stronger time slot available for Limbaugh.

Other stations, however, have shuffled their programming specifically for Limbaugh. Since his strong November ratings, he has received about 25 time upgrades on the stations that air him, said Tom Shannon, vice president and director of station sales for Multimedia Entertainment, which syndicates Limbaugh on 206 TV stations reaching 98% of the country.

TV stations now carrying Limbaugh signed one-year contracts, paying nothing for the right to air his show while sharing advertising time with Multimedia as a concession. Now that Limbaugh is a proven success, Multimedia is looking for longer-term contracts plus cash from stations.