CBS newcomer David Letterman trounced NBC rival Jay Leno in their first head-to-head battle in the late-night talk-show wars.
Letterman scored a 10.9 rating and attracted 32% of the available viewers in his initial outing on “Late Show With David Letterman” at 11:35 p.m. Monday, as opposed to Leno’s 4.1 rating and 11 share on “The Tonight Show,” according to national Nielsen figures released Tuesday by both networks. A Nielsen point represents 942,000 households.
CBS estimated that 23 million people watched at least part of “Late Show” and said that was the largest audience the network had ever had for a regularly scheduled late-night program.
“Obviously, we’re extremely pleased with his performance, which was very strong and certainly consistent with our expectation,” said David Poltrack, senior vice president for research and planning at CBS.
Poltrack said that Letterman did well with all demographic groups, not just his usual audience of young, college-educated males. He acknowledged that, following the hoopla surrounding the first night, viewership will drop considerably, but he predicted that CBS will easily meet the 4.1 ratings average it has promised advertisers.
CBS won a decided victory in the Los Angeles market too, where Letterman attracted 31% of the viewers, compared to 12% for ABC’s “Nightline” and 11% for “The Tonight Show.”
NBC downplayed Letterman’s performance, saying that Leno got better ratings in his first outing May 25, 1992, when he took over as permanent host of “The Tonight Show.” For that show, NBC said, Leno received an 11.8 rating and 36 share.
NBC executives also said that Leno’s ratings Monday did not vary greatly from his usual performance. His normal weekly ratings average about 4.4, they said.
“We’re pleased,” said Pat Schultz, vice president of media relations for NBC. “Jay did exactly what Jay always does.”
Letterman, who previously hosted “Late Night” at 12:35 a.m, following “The Tonight Show,” left NBC earlier this year after failing to win “The Tonight Show” job from Leno.
One of the highlights of Letterman’s first CBS show was an appearance by “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw. Brokaw, who was a favorite guest of Letterman’s at NBC, confiscated a couple of Letterman’s cue cards. “These last two jokes are the intellectual property of NBC,” the newsman said.
The joke referred to recent statements by NBC President Robert C. Wright that Letterman could not take popular features such as his Top 10 list and Stupid Pet Tricks from NBC to his new show, because those routines were the “intellectual property” of NBC.
After Brokaw departed, Letterman cracked, “Did you ever think you’d hear the words intellectual property and NBC in the same sentence?”
Brokaw said Tuesday that he did not seek the approval of NBC executives before deciding to go on the Letterman show.
“I didn’t want to put somebody in the position of having to say no or agonizing about it,” he said. “I just thought it would be easier if I just took responsibility for my own behavior, which I’m inclined and capable of doing.
“When the Letterman producers called me a couple of weeks ago and told me what they wanted to do,” Brokaw said, “I laughed so hard, I thought, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”
NBC seemed pleased with Brokaw’s stunt. In a statement issued Tuesday, the network said, “We are pleased that Tom Brokaw reclaimed our property last night. If David crosses the line, it might be necessary for Tom to return. We wish David Letterman well and look forward to the competition.”
NBC apparently did not have a problem legally with Letterman’s “Late Show Top 10 List,” which was almost identical to his NBC Top 10 segment.
The late-night war will escalate this month. Fox’s “The Chevy Chase Show” premieres Tuesday, followed on Sept. 13 by the start of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” on NBC.
Times Staff Writer Jane Hall contributed to this story from New York.