David Letterman leaves The Late Show tonight, capping a 33-year career as a TV talk host.  Amid the hagiography about his comedic genius and flowery tributes to a record run in late night television, there is another side to the Letterman legacy–one that adds a bit of tarnish to the halo.

For starters, the “man who changed TV” (as USA Today suggests in today’s front-page article) was an also-ran for much of his career.  From the mid-1990s until his final show, Letterman has usually finished second or third in the late-night ratings, behind Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s Tonight Show (which has dominated the time slot), and on multiple occasions, he has trailed ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel as well.  Over the past 20 years, the only times when Letterman consistently beat the competition were 2009-2010, when NBC made the ill-advised decision to put Conan O’Brien behind the desk on Tonight, and in recent weeks, when more viewers have been tuning in to watch one of Letterman’s final broadcasts.

Otherwise, Letterman has trailed the pack at 11:30 for years.  His periodic drops into third place actually began when ABC’s Nightline was still going head-to-head against the talk shows.  With the retirement of Ted Koppel (and installation of a cheaper, rotating anchor format), it was assumed that Nightline would fold, particularly in an era of cable news and on-line platforms.  But the news broadcast still exceeded ratings expectations, even though it was eventually replaced at 11:30 by Kimmel.  One TV wag suggested that ABC laughed all the way to the bank; Nightline is far less expensive to produce than a talk show–some of the talent earns about two percent of the $30 million in annual salary that CBS paid Letterman–but the news show often attracted as many viewers, and could still generate significant advertising revenue.

As for NBC, the executives who picked Jay Leno over Dave more than two decades ago can pat themselves on the back for making the right choice.  After early struggles, Leno found his footing and blew past Letterman in 1994, maintaining the ratings lead until he left Tonight (for the first time) in 2009.  Following the O’Brien debacle, Leno returned to the show and re-established his lead; by the time he retired last year, ratings for the Tonight Show were 25% higher–both overall and in the coveted 25-54 demo–than the Late Show.  Since then, new host Jimmy Fallon has maintained the lead.

Why does that matter?  Because ratings mean money, and the late night talk shows have historically been cash cows.  Despite the emergence of cable (and further fragmentation of the TV audience), the Tonight Show still adds $125 million a year to Comcast’s bottom line, though that figure is down from Leno’s peak years, when the program generated more than $200 million in annual profits.  By comparison, the Late Show is believed to be less profitable that its NBC rival, in part because the program is produced by Letterman’s production company (which shares in the profits), and the fact that Letterman commanded a higher salary than Leno–who also had a production deal–and Jimmy Fallon, who works for NBC.

Put another way: Jay Leno generated upwards of $1 billion more in profits for his network than Letterman did at CBS, and that’s the bottom line for any entertainment corporation, broadcast, cable or on-line.  And while the CBS suits have always bragged about Letterman’s critical reception, they are also relishing the chance to make more money with his departure.

Earlier this year, CBS President Les Moonves told an investor conference the network will make more money on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert at the helm, since the new host will earn less than Letterman, and CBS will retain sole ownership of the program.  In fact, one early indication that Dave’s reign was ending came when Craig Ferguson announced he was stepping down as host of the Late, Late Show more that a year ago.  Part of Letterman’s production deal gave him control of the show that followed him, but with Ferguson’s departure, CBS moved quickly to take full control of the time slot. They did not consult with Dave–or his company–about the revamped Late, Late Show, now hosted by British actor James Corden.

So, while Letterman was profitable for CBS, he wasn’t the ratings or financial bonanza the network originally envisioned.  To be fair, his show was a vast improvement over the old movies and failed news programs that previously aired in the 11:30 timeslot, but $1 billion is still real money in the TV business and when Letterman announced his retirement a few months ago, Les Moonves didn’t beg him to stay.

On a personal level, Letterman was prickly–some would say downright mean–to anyone who didn’t follow his particular brand of liberalism.  As a parting tribute, Salon proudly lists “11 Times Letterman Humiliated the Right,” including the host asking former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan if “George Bush or Dick Cheney had any humanity in them.”  He also opined that President Bush “pretty much put Haliburton in business, repeating a tired–and demonstrably false–Democratic Party talking point.  Guess Dave never heard–or cared–that his good friend Bill Clinton gave more no-bid contracts to the company than the Bush Administration ever did.  Letterman also took frequent shots at Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly (an occasional guest on his program) and others in conservative media, while heaping praise on Democrats, including Barack Obama.   

But none of that really mattered, since Letterman mastered the art of survival in a 1,000-channel universe.  At some point, the CBS host apparently became the Willy Loman of late night, deciding it was more important to be well-liked and have friends than beat the competition.  And Dave had plenty of friends, especially among TV critics and the media elites.  Network anchors frequently appeared on his program, and Letterman’s shows received 67 Emmy nominations, winning 12.  Letterman was always portrayed as the coolest guy on TV, even if he generally avoided the press.

And, at one point he was.  Back in the 80s, as the original host of Late Night on NBC, Letterman was fresh, funny and inventive.  But somewhere along the way, after Leno gained dominance at 11:30, Letterman started phoning it in.  For viewers, it was readily apparent that Cranky Dave in the Ed Sullivan Theater wasn’t the same guy who brought a new snark to late night TV.  That’s one reason Letterman never recovered, ratings-wise, after Leno blew past him in 1994.  In one of his rare interviews, Letterman said that people “liked the way Leno did his show” better than the way I did mine,” but there was no speculation from the host as to why Leno came out on top.

The answer, as John Nolte suggests, may be quite simple.  Along the way, the one-time TV weatherman from Indiana lost touch with his Middle America audience, many of them switched to Leno, and never looked back:

It was sometime around 2003 when I began to realize Letterman didn’t like me anymore. His anger was no longer subversive and clever, it was bitter and mean-spirited and palpably real. He was a jerk playing to his loyal audience — urban, cynical, elite, Blue State jerks. The humble, self-deprecating Dave had become the nasty, arrogant Letterman, an unrecognizable bully who reveled in pulling the wings off those he saw as something less.

Chris Christie’s weight; Rush Limbaugh’s personal life; everything Bill O’Reilly; Bush, Cheney, Palin, and the last straw, a statutory rape joke about Palin’s 15 year-old daughter. Suddenly you were a dangerous idiot for protecting the most Indiana of things — your gun.

The man who could make you laugh at yourself now wanted to hurt and humiliate.
Yet, the steady decline in ratings (and revenue) was somehow unimportant, outside the sales department at CBS.  We were supposed to enjoy the comedic mastery on display every night after the local news. Letterman still had his moments from time-to-time, but he often looked like a guy just going through the motions, reserving his real venom for anyone on the right side of the political spectrum.

To use one of his favorite terms, Dave was also a little creepy on a personal level, as his audience learned in late 2009.  Letterman was forced to admit multiple affairs with female staffers on his program, just months after marrying his long-time girl friend Regina Lasko. There was also the matter of sexual harassment; after all, Letterman was also the head of a production company that employed the women.  And the host made his confession reluctantly; the boyfriend of his latest conquest had attempted to blackmail Letterman and he went to the police.  The NYPD was on the verge of making the whole thing public when Dave offered his pre-emptive admission.

Not surprisingly, he survived the episode with hardly a scratch–at least publicly.  The media depicted Letterman as a victim, and not a leech who preyed on young women employed by his show.  CBS never wavered in its support, and Letterman caught another break when the Tiger Woods sex scandal broke at the same time.  His friends in the media decided that Woods was a bigger story and Letterman’s serial indiscretions were quickly forgotten.

Now, the longest-running host in late night television is preparing to sail off into the sunset, unsure about his future plans.  Not that he really has to worry; Letterman’s lengthy tenure as an also-ran made him a wealthy man, with a personal fortune somewhere around $400 million.  He now has more time to spend with his 11-year-old son, and there’s speculation that Letterman will follow the example of his idol (Johnny Carson) and disappear from TV.  After retiring from the Tonight Show in 1992, Carson only appeared on television once more, a brief walk-on with Letterman two years later.

There are millions of viewers who won’t be disappointed if Dave pulls a similar vanishing act.

After finishing this post, I was surprised to find similar thoughts in the Washington Post, of all places.      
Finally, any summation on Letterman’s career would not be complete without a look back on Leno being named Carson’ successor on the Tonight Show, the decision that sent Dave to CBS.  While that episode has been dissected at great length (most notably in Bill Carter’s book The Late Shift), it still highlights some of the personal traits of both men that set events in motion, and defined late night TV for a generation.

Letterman, the critics’ favorite (and Johnny Carson’s personal choice), seemed to believe the job was his by acclamation.  Leno, the dark horse candidate, lobbied relentlessly for the chair.  If NBC needed someone to host an event for its new prime time line-up, Leno volunteered.  And, as Carson’s designated fill-in, he taped scores of promos for local NBC affiliates and made it a point to meet with station managers while on the road doing stand-up.  Leno’s campaign has been described as “scheming” (and in far less generous terms) but it proved to be a winning strategy.  Letterman waited for NBC to give him the big job and it never came.  Leno worked for the opportunity and it paid off.  He took on the toughest job in show business–replacing Carson–and succeeded.  Letterman had to settle for the consolation prize.

As the Post trenchantly observed today, a silver medal seems to be in order.  Obviously, no one at the paper had a young, female relative working at Worldwide Pants.