OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

It was ten days that shook the world, or at least the world that Americans find so fascinating: the glamorous, high-stakes realms represented by the media and entertainment industries, particularly television. After a public soap opera, David Letterman, the host of a late-night talk show on CBS TV, spurned an offer from a rival network, ABC, that was willing to replace its late-night news programme, Nightline, with Letterman's brand of night-owl comedy and chat.

Why was ABC eager to jettison Nightline after more than two decades of award-winning reportage? Madison Avenue far prefers the younger audiences that watch entertainment rather than news after primetime, because 18- to 34-year-olds are presumed to be more willing to switch brands and more eager to buy cars, drink beer and go to the movies.

There have been concerted efforts to convince agencies that older consumers are worth chasing too, especially baby boomers with fat wallets and youthful attitudes, but to date, those pleas have fallen on indifferent ears.

So though the typical weeknight audience for Late Show With David Letterman on CBS is 3.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, compared with 3.6 million to 3.8 million for Nightline and its host, Ted Koppel, CBS is able to command about $40,000 for each 30 seconds of commercial time, against the $35,000 that ABC charges. One major reason for that disparity: among men aged 18 to 34 years old, Late Show has almost two times as many viewers as Nightline.

How high the trees can grow is demonstrated by the late-night leader, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno on NBC, also a talk-comedy programme. Leno once trailed Letterman in the ratings but soon found his footing by recalling how you can never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public. Leno, who makes Benny Hill look like Olivier's Hamlet, attracts an average of 4.7 million viewers each weeknight, enabling NBC to charge $60,000 or so for each 30-second spot.

No wonder ABC rushed to try to sign Letterman during a negotiating window in his CBS deal, even though he is often prickly, enjoys bashing his network bosses on the air and would be almost 60 at the end of a new five-year contract. Even more startling was ABC's willingness to risk raising the wrath of public-minded citizens by canceling one of its premier news shows at one of the most critical junctures in American history.

Indeed, Letterman's announcement he would stay with CBS came on the sixth-month anniversary of 11 September. He acknowledged in a speech at the start of the show that evening: "Compared with that, this is all trivial, pointless and downright silly."

Then, thoroughly abashed, he promised he'd donate the money he'll earn from his new CBS pact, estimated at $157.5 million, to a college scholarship fund for children who lost parents in the terrorist attacks.

Just kidding. Like the "show-business weasels

he deplores, Letterman proceeded to natter on about the purported difficulty in choosing between the lucrative deals and even put in a kind word for Koppel, who, of course, is now thoroughly compromised by Letterman's willingness to entertain the ABC overtures.

Roll over, Ed Murrow, and tell Walter Cronkite the news.

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