OK, You Late-Nighters, It's Dave Time On CBS

This week, Dave is back . . . and, just in case there's anyone who still doesn't know, CBS has him.

Though NBC has been airing repeats of his past programs, David Letterman has been on a two-month hiatus, preparing for the launch of his much-heralded move to a rival network.

"Late Show With David Letterman" finally begins Monday (11:35 p.m. Channel 7, Seattle), and CBS' reported $14 million deal with the star suggests its best chance in its history to carve a substantial slice of the late-night audience for itself.

Bandleader Paul Shaffer is making the switch along with Letterman, but the status of some other familiar aspects - specifically, "Stupid Pet Tricks" and "The Top Ten List" - remain in doubt, since senior NBC executives spent the summer maintaining that they wouldn't release the rights it held on those segments, deeming them to be "intellectual property."

Humor still there

Nevertheless, Letterman's distinctively skewed sense of humor is one element it can't hold back, much to the delight of fans who watched him during the 11 1/2 years he was a wee-hours fixture on NBC. Virtually the entire behind-the-scenes staff, including executive producers Robert Morton and Peter Lassally, also has followed Letterman across Manhattan from his former Rockefeller Center studio to the newly refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater.

Regardless of what NBC may or may not allow him to bring to CBS, the ever-wry Letterman vows, "It's going to be the same show. I'm the same guy, these are the same producers, this is the same musical director. If they let us do the stuff that we did before, that's great. If they don't let us do it, that's great, too, because I have a feeling that there is an infinite number of ideas.

"One of the things we liked to try to do on the show in the past was (to use) as many different ideas as we could steal, then just keep them going. I'm really not worried about this, and it would really surprise me if we didn't somehow all find ourselves together on the high road. I think a lot of what may have been said and written is sort of in fun, and I honestly don't anticipate any problems."

Nevertheless, NBC President Robert Wright says, "The David Letterman situation is really not about Dave . . . it's about copyright protection. There are certain intellectual-property issues that do not travel with Dave, and we have to work that out, or they have to understand that that's the way it is."

NBC programming chief Warren Littlefield adds, "It is essential for a corporation to protect the properties that it owns, and I think that's something we cannot escape, nor should we. Clearly, we knew we were giving Dave a great opportunity to take shots (at us) and sound off, but at the end of the day, we have rights to protect."

Generally, though, Letterman exudes his trademark bemusement when he considers the sequence of events that brought him from NBC to CBS. "I think the whole thing has gotten to be unbelievable," he reflects, "especially the year that ensued following NBC's selecting Jay (Leno) to do `The Tonight Show' (a position for which Letterman wanted to be considered).

"At that point, honest, I thought that I was just going to have to leave and I wouldn't have a job. I'm very, very lucky to be in this situation. I can't believe that it has all happened. The discussion of it and the ongoing stories, to me, are stunning. I assume everything is OK in the rest of the world." As for the persistent speculation about whether Letterman will seem any different in airing an hour earlier, he claims, "All of those questions will be answered the first night or the first week. It'll either seem very odd or it'll seem OK. You know, I see myself almost every hour of the day, and I think that's fine."

Welcomes competition

As for Leno, he seems to embrace the imminent competition from Letterman, on whose NBC show he frequently was a guest before his "Tonight" era began. "I think Dave will do huge, he'll do terrific," Leno says. "I think there'll be a lot of sampling (of post-prime-time fare), since people will stay up to watch television. Can we get some of those people over to our show? Well, we're certainly going to try. David is a gentleman and a fair fighter, and so am I. I think it'll be great. It's `Millionaires Arguing at Late Night,' battling for audiences. I love it."

For CBS, persuading its affiliates to air Letterman's new show directly against "Tonight" - to ensure truly competitive ratings, among other things - has been a top-priority mission, and a recent report cited 67 percent of all CBS stations as conforming to that request. (Some stations either are legally bound or desirous to run syndicated programming immediately after their late newscasts, since a station can make more money by selling more local advertising time.)

"When we started this," Letterman muses, "it was apparent, since CBS has been signing off around noon for the last 15 years or so, that it was going to be difficult to rebuild and get 100 percent clearance (at the show's actual broadcast time). It's something I'm not worrying about. We just do the best we can, and hope for the best."

CBS' top brass is demonstrably giddy about having Letterman aboard, especially the executive credited the most with luring him over, network president Howard Stringer.

"The pursuit of David Letterman indicates to us that we want to define our network carefully, enthusiastically and intelligently," says Stringer. "So far, so great." Letterman's supposed breakdown in communication with Stringer's counterparts at NBC evidently set the stage for his exit from that network.

"As I guess time does for you, it kind of leads me to believe that things worked out for the better," Letterman says. "Through all of this, I've suffered no rancor (toward the higher-ups at NBC). I've had a little remorse, but certainly no acrimony. I don't hold a grudge. I feel like it's just part of my life that I've come through, and now, I couldn't be happier."