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Deja Vu for Exec Who Started Late-Night Wars

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The latest turn in the late-night story is part of a
continuing saga touched off by Rod Perth, who as a senior VP at CBS helped lure
David Letterman from NBC to CBS.

As NBC again tries to make a transition at its venerable Tonight Show, Perth, now president and
CEO of NATPE, says some things have changed in the daypart, but some things
haven't. The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Perth.

Can you believe
we're talking about changes at the
Tonight Show again?

This is crazy, isn't it? It never ceases to amaze me how we pay so much
attention to late-night television and the moving chairs and the rumors and
everything else. It's stunning to me. But it keeps going on. And Jay remains
the one constant. He's always at the center of it.

We know it
generates a lot of talk, but how important is late night to a television

I think it's important because it's some of the last network real estate
that was uniquely the providence of NBC forever, and then later NBC and CBS and
now there are so many competitors. I think the stakes remain very, very, very
high. And while the ratings are lower, the profits are significantly reduced,
it's still about a franchise that I think networks will protect and defend.

People and shows
are usually pretty replaceable in the TV business. Why are late-night hosts so
hard to change?
Because the combination of skill sets required to host a show in late
night are so unique. It's like the superstar chef. There's only a handful of
them and there's a reason. They're not only great chefs, they're creative,
they're artistic. And it's the same with talk show hosts. It's the old adage
that viewers invite them into their bedrooms five nights a week. And the skill
set, comedic talent, the right combination of hipness and not so hip that they
alienate the middle of the country, and topicality, and intelligence, and
interviewing skills are incredibly scarce. Given the fact that there are so
many shows now, it's no wonder that there's always going to be so much
attention paid to them, because they're kind of household words. Even in an era
of fragmentation.

Do you think that
now that NBC's made its plans official that it will play out the way the
network expects?

I'm sure there will be more twists and turns. [Leno and the others talk
about it on their shows, so] he kind of contributes to that. That's part of
being on late night. He dumps on the bosses. David Letterman used to call me a
weasel. And I knew that I was important when he called me a weasel. I was so
proud of it. People would come up to me and go ‘you're a weasel' and I'd go ‘I
know, I know.' It means I'm important in his life.

Is there a way to
stabilize the situation?

I was one of the guys, [former CBS CEO] Howard Stringer and I, who kind of
threw the first grenade that pushed the first domino, pursuing Letterman or
Leno. And I was going after both of them at the same time. It's difficult to
control those things when you're inside a company. It's very, very difficult. I
think it should be noted that it is to NBC's credit. They invented the form,
they found and nurtured more talent that others over time benefited from all
the way back to the earliest days of the Tonight
all the way to today. Everybody has been taking shots at the form that
was basically invented by NBC back when. And that shouldn't get lost. So I kind
of empathize with the fact that they're going through transitional difficulties
once again. But part of the reason for that is that the press is all over it.
It started with the late-night wars that I was involved in in the early ‘90s.
In those days, we were getting press clippings, we weren't getting it online.
And every single day, it would be an inch thick with clips from newspaper and
trades from across the country reporting on this. The newspapers in Dayton,
Ohio, were reporting on the late-night wars. So it went beyond just being a
television business story to one that really involved viewers and people paid
attention to.

Why would NBC want
to do this now?

My guess is they see something in Jimmy Fallon that they believe can be
adapted. His strength would be more of a variety show. He's a singer, a writer,
he's a comedian. He's extremely hip but at the same time he can be endearing.
He's got amazing qualities and he's got Lorne Michaels, who is one of the great
talent mentors and nurturers of all time as his producer. That's a pretty
potent combination. I wouldn't count it out.

they be successful?

Fallon is stepping into competition that is just
unbelievable. There's also the disruption of a daypart that hadn't changed, now
the viewership has changed dramatically. Young males are now watching other
things or online. They're digitally savvy. Where Kimmel has done such a good
job is he's taken advantage of blogging, reaching and touching his viewers in
ways I suspect the TonightShow
hasn't. And I think Fallon has, so Fallon in that slot fits that need very
well. And by the way, Dave is still there. Dave should benefit from all of this
because older viewers who might not be as used to a Fallon with his approach
might turn to Dave.