UPDATED THROUGHOUT, 7:35 PM: CBS late-night star David Letterman surprised his studio audience this afternoon when he announced he is retiring in 2015. “The man who owns this network, Leslie Moonves, he and I have had a relationship for years and years and years, and we have had this conversation in the past, and we agreed that we would work together on this circumstance and the timing of this circumstance. And I phoned him just before the program, and I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring,’” Letterman told his Ed Sullivan Theatre crowd, who reacted with stunned silence. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Letterman only notified Moonves this morning.
“You actually did this?” Letterman’s music director Paul Shafer said when Letterman broke it to his audience, jumping in to fill the awkward silence. “Yes, I did,” Letterman said with a melancholy smile.
Letterman is the longest-serving late-night host in TV history, last year surpassing his friend and mentor Johnny Carson at the 31-year mark (Letterman made his late-night debut as host of NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman in 1982, moving to CBS to host Late Show in ’93). Today’s news comes almost two months after rival Jay Leno departed NBC’s The Tonight Show after a 22-year run.
Word that CBS does not have a clear succession plan caused The Reporters Who Cover Television begin to play The Replacement Game. Craig Ferguson, who hosts Worldwide Pants’ other CBS late-night show (it’s now a co-production with CBS), has a succession clause in his contract, but that contract is set to expire this summer. Presumably, he’d seek the same in his next contract. Should CBS balk, the network might find itself looking for two late-night hosts within months of each other — which would be tough, and not the image of stability CBS has so carefully cultivated. Additionally, Ferguson has won a Peabody Award for his show and has hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and that kind of prestige appeals to Moonves. Another name that popped up this afternoon: Neil Patrick Harris — the versatile How I Met Your Mother star who has demonstrated a knack for talk shows when he sat in with Kelly Ripa on her syndicated daytime talker and is highly regarded at the network for his stints hosting the Tony and Emmy Awards. Other candidates included Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, whose contracts are both coming up in mid-2015, though it’s unclear if either would be interested in the content constraints of broadcast TV. Another former Comedy Central late-night personality, The Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, had met with CBS earlier, but he’s since signed with HBO. Other names making the rounds Thursday: Chelsea Handler, who has said she’s leaving E!, and TBS’ Conan O’Brien.
Back in October, as his long-term rival Leno was preparing to sign off as host of The Tonight Show, Letterman signed a new contract extension that would keep him as host of Late Show through 2015, solidifying his position as the undisputed doyen of late-night. “There is only one Dave, and we are extremely proud that he continues to call CBS ‘home,’” CBS Corp CEO Moonves said at the time. Letterman chimed in, “Les and I had a lengthy discussion, and we both agreed that I needed a little more time to fully run the show into the ground.” In an interview with Oprah Winfrey last year, Letterman said he and Moonves had an agreement that Moonves had to tell him when it is time to go. But Moonves had said the show was Letterman’s for as long as he cared to have the gig.
“For 21 years, David Letterman has graced our network’s air in late night with wit, gravitas and brilliance unique in the history of our medium,” Moonves said this afternoon. “During that time, Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events. He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes – including me.”
The announcement, while a humdinger, isn’t really such a surprise, Letterman having telegraphed his intentions pretty clearly when he decided to re-up for just one more year. With the late-night TV landscape changing so dramatically of late, CBS insiders say Letterman and Moonves had had several conversations about the timing of Letterman’s departure and his eventual retirement from the show. But around the halls, they were unclear as to why Letterman made the decision to make the announcement today; CBS’ upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall, at which the network unveils its programming plans for next season, is scheduled to take place six weeks from yesterday. In making his announcement to his audience, Letterman noted he is about to celebrate his 67th birthday.
Both Leno and Letterman’s contracts had been set to come up this fall. While Leno’s was cut short by the Tonight host transition to Jimmy Fallon, Letterman’s renewal added to his tenure as the longest-running late-night talk-show host in television history at 31 years and counting — the past 20 at CBS. While The Tonight Show remains dominant in the late-night ratings with an extra boost from the run-up to Leno’s pending departure, CBS noted that Late Show posted a 5% year-to-year viewership increase during the opening week of the 2013-14 broadcast season.
Letterman’s Worldwide Pants issued a statement this afternoon:
David Letterman Announces His Retirement from the Late Show
David Letterman, during a taping of tonight’s Late Show, said that he informed Leslie Moonves, President and CEO of CBS Corporation, that he will step down as the host of the show in 2015, which is when his current contract expires.
“The man who owns this network, Leslie Moonves, he and I have had a relationship for years and years and years, and we have had this conversation in the past, and we agreed that we would work together on this circumstance and the timing of this circumstance. And I phoned him just before the program, and I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring,’” said Letterman.
“I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much. What this means now, is that Paul and I can be married.”
“We don’t have the timetable for this precisely down – I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future, 2015 for the love of God, in fact, Paul and I will be wrapping things up,” he added, to a standing ovation from the audience in the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Letterman’s career as a late night broadcaster has spanned more than 32 years and nearly 6,000 episodes. He was the first host of Late Night at NBC from 1982-1992, and he has been the only host of Late Show, which he created on CBS in 1993. The two shows have been nominated for 108 Emmys, winning eight. Late Night received a Peabody in 1992, and Letterman became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2012.
“When Dave decided on a one-year extension for his most recent contract, we knew this day was getting closer, but that doesn’t make the moment any less poignant for us. For 21 years, David Letterman has graced our Network’s air in late night with wit, gravitas and brilliance unique in the history of our medium. During that time, Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events. He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes – including me. There is only one David Letterman. His greatness will always be remembered here, and he will certainly sit among the pantheon of this business. On a personal note, it’s been a privilege to get to know Dave and to enjoy a terrific relationship. It’s going to be tough to say goodbye. Fortunately, we won’t have to do that for another year or so. Until then, we look forward to celebrating Dave’s remarkable show and incredible talents.”