Television Anchor Desk: The Late Night Rivalry
by Chad Maddux
Published: December 6, 2000
This article was originally published as part of the "Deep Thoughts... Well, those from the shallow end" series.
Jay Leno and David Letterman have been at war since Jay Leno won the most coveted chair in late night television, host of the Tonight Show. David Letterman had hosted "Late Night", which followed Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, for many years expecting to be awarded the Tonight Show for his dedication to NBC. Jay Leno had plans of his own for the Tonight Show. After guest hosting for several years, Jay Leno was awarded the Tonight Show in 1993. David Letterman decided he could no longer work for the network he felt had betrayed him. He left NBC after his contract expired and moved to CBS to host The Late Show, which would fall in the time slot against the Tonight Show. In October 1993, the Late Show premiered and the late night war had begun.
The Late Show was an immediate success and continually led in the ratings over Jay Leno's Tonight Show. NBC worried that it had made the wrong choice when choosing the large chinned comic. For the next three years, Letterman dominated in late night and Jay Leno and NBC were becoming discouraged. On July 11, 1995, the war turned in favor of Leno. Hugh Grant was Leno's guest that night where he talked with Jay about his highly publicized arrest after being caught with a prostitute by Hollywood police. On that night, Hugh Grant brought Leno its highest rating since Jay Leno's premiere. It was also the first time Leno won the ratings war with Letterman. From that night, Leno has continued to gain his audience.
Since that night in 1995, David Letterman has seen a steady decline in his ratings, but they have begun to turn around. Letterman saw his highest ratings in three years on February 21, 2000 and won the ratings battle that night. If the trend of the past several years continues, it appears Leno will remain at the top of the late night ratings charts and Letterman will hold the number two spot. Today, it appears neither man is overly concerned with ratings. They both just enjoy making people laugh.
The Tonight Show airs on NBC every weeknight at 11:35 (ET) and The Late Show airs on CBS at the same time.