Tom Snyder is driving a sporty black two-door Cadillac through Beverly Hills, on his way to a new future--again.
His destination is CBS Television City. His assignment: Just as he established a late-late talk show following NBC’s Johnny Carson from 1973 to 1982, he now will try to do the same for David Letterman, starting Jan. 9.
At 58, in an open-collared dress shirt and slacks, Snyder looks fit and slender. He says he takes long daily walks: “I go at a pretty good clip. I do three miles in about 45 minutes.”
He reminisces about a career that reads like a road map of broadcasting: local news, network news and NBC’s late-late “Tomorrow” show, where he established the bravado talkmeister style--irreverent and sometimes abrasive--that Dan Aykroyd of “Saturday Night Live” jumped on.
More recently, there was a nighttime ABC Radio talk show and then a CNBC cable series, both of which caught the eye and ear of Letterman, a longtime fan, who subsequently tapped him for the plum job following his own show after Bob Costas turned down the post.
As Snyder wheels toward CBS, he is definitely heading for a fork in the road after more than a quarter-century of high-profile exposure crisscrossing the country. Los Angeles, New York, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Atlanta are among the major stops. When he was on top, as with “Tomorrow,” it was the very top. But he has also bombed, and bombed badly, as he did in his overpromoted failure at WABC-TV in New York. That was in the early 1980s, and he seemed washed up.
“Oh, yeah, peaks and valleys,” he acknowledges.
That’s putting it mildly. But, as fate would have it, the egg he laid in New York eventually led to the start of the road back that now has landed him “The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder,” following Letterman. Snyder doesn’t like the word comeback . “I’ve never been away,” he says.
Yet it certainly was a form of national comeback. After the WABC-TV flop, he did an afternoon show on Los Angeles station KABC-TV Channel 7--only to be replaced there also by the syndicated Oprah Winfrey series.
But then he began his nightly ABC Radio gig, followed by his engaging, well-received CNBC prime-time series the last two years.
Producer Michael Horowicz, who was with Snyder during the WABC-TV years and on the CNBC show, which ended just a month ago, says of the New York fiasco: “Those were bad times for Tom. He deserves a shot, to have his fun now. I’m just here with him for the ride.
“Tom will even say it: Radio changed him. He was almost bitter, jaded, cynical when he left New York. And then when I met up with him again a year ago, he was deeper. He was like a fine aged wine. I think what happened was a little bit of humbling, but mostly the interaction with the callers. It softened him and put him in touch with his viewers and his listeners, people who were his fans. That was the big thing.”
Snyder concurs: “I discovered radio, and to this day I love it. I love it more than I will ever love television because, to me, it is the most intimate and the most powerful medium of all broadcasting. The 5 1/2 years that I worked for ABC Radio were the best years of my life.”
(In fact, two key elements of talk radio will be part of Snyder’s new CBS show: It will be fed live to stations in the East and Midwest, and it will include calls from viewers. CBS Radio, which plans to simulcast the show nationally, is aiming to line up 150 stations.)
After he left radio for cable’s CNBC, Snyder says bluntly, “There were a lot of people at CNBC who said, ‘Tom is over the hill.’ ”
But Andy Friendly, the vice president of prime-time programs who hired Snyder for CNBC, says the broadcaster turned out to be “the heart and soul” of the cable network during the last two years.
“There’s no question that his leaving is a huge loss for us,” Friendly “More than anyone else, he symbolized the growth of CNBC.”
Friendly says CNBC tried hard to keep Snyder, “but in the end, the lure of the big tent, the big network, getting back to broadcasting in the late night, which he always loved, working with Letterman--who’s a friend and fan of his--and the symmetry of taking back his own time period, which Dave took from him (at NBC), there’s a lot of magic wrapped up in all that, and I think that’s what really did it for Tom.”
Letterman is CBS’ biggest star right now--the undisputed new king of late-night TV--and his company, Worldwide Pants Inc., will produce the Snyder series. The reported $42-million deal that brought Letterman to CBS from NBC included the rights to a follow-up show. And the executive producers of “The Late Show With David Letterman"--Peter Lassally and Robert Morton--will also be the executive producers of the Snyder entry.
Speaking of Snyder, Letterman says: “I’m very fond of this guy. I saw his very first ‘Tomorrow’ show and watched many of them over the years. The impression one got of intimacy for that time of night and his communication skills were terrific--the perfect man for the time period.”
Noting Snyder’s recent CNBC foray, Letterman adds: “We want to sharpen the show a little bit. What we need are (guests) like Strom Thurmond and Newt Gingrich to bring it back into the news.”
(Synder’s first week of guests skews ecelectic: “Murphy Brown” star Candice Bergen on Monday, poet Maya Angelou on Tuesday, author and political figure Arianna Huffington and rap singer Ice-T on Wednesday, “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer on Thursday and singer Jon Bon Jovi and former whiz kid Barry Minkow on Friday.)
CBS, meanwhile, is working mightily to have its stations make room for Snyder. The network optimistically hopes for about 80% total clearance early this year, with perhaps 40% carrying him live at first, the rest on a delayed basis. And the veteran broadcaster is getting first-class support. Besides Letterman and his coterie, there is also senior producer Tamara Haddad, formerly with “Larry King Live” at CNN, where she had a notable career.
The Letterman staff, based in New York, apparently intends a hands-on approach to get Snyder’s Los Angeles-based series off the ground. Lassally, who formerly produced Carson’s “Tonight” program, says he expects to be in Los Angeles more often, “closely supervising the show.”
“Primarily I will be with Dave,” he says, “but in the beginning, until the (Snyder) show is on steady feet, I may spend more time on the Coast.”
In the end, of course, a Snyder talk show is a simple equation: You give him some interesting guests, make sure the camera lens is in focus and basically get the hell out of the way. If his sense of humor and broadcasting are in good form, and the audience buys the package, you’re home free.
But there is, in the insane business of TV, where sponsors kowtow to the 18-to-49-year-old audience--because it spends a lot and spends impulsively--the question of age. The white-haired Snyder, now a grandfather, will be competing with NBC’s Conan O’Brien, who is 32.
And there is an irony in the fact that Snyder, at “Tomorrow,” helped build the station lineup that first Letterman, and now O’Brien, inherited. NBC’s head of late-night programs, Rick Ludwin, pays his respects to Snyder and his new series, saying: “Much like when David Letterman joined CBS’ late-night schedule, we think this will recruit new viewers to the time period.”
Snyder faces the age question head-on. Sensing the direction of a reporter’s question about CBS’ current demographic problems in attracting young viewers, he finishes the sentence:
” . . . And now they get this guy out of a nursing home who’s 58 years old. That is a fair question because it is a real situation. There’s a perception across Madison Avenue, along Broadcast Row, that if you’re over the age of 49, you don’t count for anything.
“There are those who predict that, hey, the show’s gonna skew old. I just think they’re wrong. By the way, if they’re right, if the show does skew older, if the show doesn’t sell any commercial time, guess what? It’s gonna go off the air real quick. Let’s be realistic. David Letterman and CBS are not doing this because they think I’m a great guy.
“If I don’t pull a crowd, if I don’t fill the tent, I can be the greatest guy in the world, but I’m going off the air. That’s OK. Thirty years ago, it would have made me crazy. But all that doesn’t bother me anymore.”
“Because I don’t have to prove it anymore. I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. They all know who I am, and they all know what I do. And I’m not running for office. I’m not looking to go on at 11:30. I don’t want to anchor the ‘NBC Nightly News.’ I don’t want to open on Broadway. I have no ambitions.
“I’ve fulfilled every dream I had in this world. Who else gets to go on after Johnny Carson and after David Letterman in one lifetime? Who could be so lucky? So they can talk about the demographics and how it’s gonna be old people and blah-blah-blah.”
Joel Segal, a top executive of the McCann-Erickson advertising agency, says of Snyder: “He’s a youthful guy for his age. He has a young outlook. And considering that David Letterman has wit and bite to his humor, I think that people who are looking for that kind of bite and sarcasm will get a kick out of Snyder. If Letterman promotes him a little bit, he could do OK. You don’t expect big numbers (ratings) at that hour anyway.”
CBS, however, has a major priority: Having stripped NBC’s “Tonight Show” of its leadership, thanks to Letterman, it now is betting on Snyder to make the late-night coup complete.
Assuming that O’Brien holds on to his job, Snyder’s entry into the fray will certainly give viewers a choice--and not just because of the age difference.
“You got it,” Snyder says. “The choice is very simple. Conan O’Brien is a comedy writer and a stand-up comedian in the making. He’s been on the air for about a year and he’s improved greatly. There’s no question about it. I watch his show occasionally, and it is a show driven by comedy. We’re not going that road. We’re going the road of the classic late-night talk show. The emphasis here is on conversation.”
What will be the difference between Snyder’s “Tomorrow” series that followed Carson and his new program that follows Letterman?
“Probably very little,” Snyder says. “The technology is better. In addition to doing it live at 9:30 p.m. here, we have the 800 phone number because it works. We live in a time when people feel so disconnected that talk radio is very popular. I think it’s because in the country today there are a lot of people who think nobody’s listening to them.
“Their spouse doesn’t listen to them. Their employer doesn’t listen to them. If the election results are any indication, their congressmen aren’t listening to them. Christ, they threw half of them out. But they can call Larry King or they can call me or they can call Rush Limbaugh--they can pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.’ ”
Snyder hangs a right on Fairfax, near the corner of Beverly, and drives on to the CBS lot. Moments later, he breezes collegially into the large suite of offices that CBS has turned over to him and the Letterman company as part of the network’s red-carpet treatment of the late-night duo it is banking on.
Senior producer Haddad, producer Horowicz, director Brian McAloon--who worked on the Letterman show--and an eager young staff are bustling about, setting up shop. Snyder grabs a call from executive producer Morton in New York. Then he heads out for the new studio that is under construction. It is huge for a simple talk show that will have no studio audience. At CNBC, he worked out of a matchbox-size studio.
“This is big, this is monstrous,” Snyder says as he surveys the lay-out. “We could play football in here. I got nothin’ to do with this. This is all Mr. Letterman’s. It’s his party.”
He sees a workman puffing on a cigarette in the studio, and they greet each other.
“Hi,” Snyder booms. “It’s nice to see ya. It’s good to see a man smoking in this place, for chrissake.”
Commenting later on the studio size, John Pike, CBS’ senior vice president of late-night programming, says: “What we don’t want to do is give the impression that it’s just a riser and two chairs. It will be intimate, but we hope it will also have a grand feel to it. We don’t want this show to have a static look. We want interesting camera angles.”
Leaving the studio, Snyder recalls the words of former NBC executive Dave Tebet: “Remember one thing, pal. Nobody ever left a hit show humming the set.”
Back in his office, Snyder elabo rates on what he thinks should be his place in network television in the ‘90s.
“Dave Letterman and I are really the last link to Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson,” he says, listing the former hosts of “The Tonight Show.” He speaks of the legacy of “crackling conversation with guests that would make you sit riveted. Now it’s five minutes and you’re gone.
“Late-night television is going in a different direction now. If you look at NBC, for example, there are three stand-up comedians doing late-night talk shows. Greg Kinnear isn’t really a stand-up comedian, yet he comes out and does a stand-up. And so does Conan O’Brien, and so does Jay Leno.”
Letterman, of course, also does some stand-up to start his show. But, Snyder says, “Dave and I are really the last of the old-time broadcasters. And when I say old-time, I mean David Letterman goes back to weather-casting at a TV station in Indiana, and he goes back to the Mary Tyler Moore variety show. He goes back to his own (NBC) program in the morning before he took the late-night time period from us.”
Asked if he thinks people will sit still for lengthy network talk in the age of short attention spans, Snyder says: “Yes, I do. I think the people who produce TV don’t trust the audience. They think we’re all channel-surfing, and I don’t think we are, especially people watching late at night.
“You know, the late-night audience is different from the prime-time audience. They aren’t going anywhere. They’re in no hurry to get anything done. The kids are to bed, the dinner is over, the hair is washed, the bed is turned down. There’s no pressure to look for something different.
“The reason we’re going to shoot this show without a studio audience is my belief--and I could be 100% wrong--that unless you’re a teen-ager, by 12:30 in the morning, you don’t need a cheering crowd, you don’t need a lot of noise. You’ve had noise all day long, for God’s sake. Let’s quiet it down a little.”
The approach to do the post- Letterman show came from Lassally and Morton, who first wanted Snyder to meet with Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group.
“So I went to New York and I had my lunch with Howard Stringer,” Synder says. “I went up to his office in the CBS building, and, you know, I’m still a little kid from Milwaukee and I still get impressed by all this stuff. So I get up to the office, and my heart’s going a mile a minute. The secretary said, ‘Could you wait a couple of minutes?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So I sat down there and made believe I was reading the paper--I couldn’t see it to save my soul. I tried to dry my hands off so I wouldn’t give him the wet-fish handshake.
“So I spent a couple of hours with him, and then Mr. Tisch came in,” he recalls, referring to CBS Chairman Laurence A. Tisch. “And I kind of outlined what I thought ought to happen in late night: a live show, simulcast on radio, and no studio audience. And I emphasized that they ought to hire a broadcaster, not a comedian.
“And I went down afterward to the ’21' restaurant to get myself a little glass of Scotch and a cigar and just kind of reflect on the day. And I wanted to call my agent, Ed Hookstratten, to let him know that the meeting went well. And I said to a fellow in the restaurant, ‘You know, I’ve never asked you in 25 years to bring a phone to the table, because that’s phony--but would you bring me a phone, please, because I’m gonna have a heart attack in about three minutes, and I don’t want you to have to send the CPR guys to the phone in the men’s room.’
“So I had a little drink and a little smoke and walked back to the hotel and stopped at St. Paddy’s (St. Patrick’s Cathedral) and lit a candle for my dad and said, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Snyder and his staff are having lunch in the CBS commissary here. Producer Horowicz says he has specific instructions from Morton and Lassally: “They told me, ‘Never get beat on a story.’ If there’s a hot guest and there are eight talk shows trying to get the guest, we better win.
“That’s incumbent on me. I’m the one with the news background, 21 years. If I can’t do that, then I shouldn’t have this job.”
Senior producer Haddad adds: “Can I use the pressure of the Letterman show to help us (with guests) as we launch this thing? Yeah, sure.”
When she is asked about further details, Snyder cracks: “Make it simple. The guests and phone calls are props for Tom.”
Everybody laughs because it’s close to the truth.
But the station clearances--the key to ratings--are no laughing matter. The action shows that Snyder is replacing are currently cleared by less than 40% of CBS stations, says Tony Malara, head of affiliate relations for the network.
He adds that the Snyder series “is as fast a launch as I can ever remember.” CBS stations that will have to ride out commitments to other shows in the Snyder time slot “are trying very hard to come to us,” Malara says.
Says Haddad: “We’re mining entirely new television territory for CBS.”
Lassally, who had to go through a similar clearance headache with Letterman, takes it philosophically: “We’ll have to struggle a little. We knew on both shows we’d have problems in the beginning.”
Snyder knows the problems too, but with the Letterman force behind him, his confidence is especially high.
When he is pumped up, Snyder can turn on the brash, high-powered charm and the salesmanship like Prof. Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” which might not be bad casting for him. Exuding total certainty, he says: “This is going to be fine, and it’s going to be fun.”
But in an occasional moment, a kind of ironic self-appraisal of his future can dart unexpectedly into his remarks about his coming series. With a quiet laugh, he says: “This is it. I can’t fool ‘em much longer.”
His former CNBC boss, Friendly, thinks that Snyder was “very torn” about whether to take the shot with CBS. Snyder maintains that he never sought the job in the first place: “It’s just all serendipity.”
And anyway, whatever happens, there’s always radio.
* “The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder,” starting Jan. 9, will air at 12:35 a.m. on KCBS Channel 2 and KFMB Channel 8 in San Diego.