Originally created 01/25/00

'Late Night' swept into sweeps without host



HOLLYWOOD -- They are impolite questions, given that David Letterman is only 10 days removed from a life scare -- quintuple bypass heart surgery, performed after an angiogram showed a major blockage in one of his arteries.

But how long can CBS afford to air reruns, with February sweeps nine days away and serious audience erosion a possibility? Will Mr. Letterman acquiesce to guest hosts? And will he be able to resume his 12-hour workdays when he does return?

The Late Show host was released from New York-Presbyterian Hospital on Wednesday, less than a week after his surgery. On Thursday, Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett, who hasn't been speaking to the media, called into Howard Stern's morning radio show and predicted Mr. Letterman would be back to work in less than six weeks, a month ahead of recent projections.

"We're not scared of guest hosts," Mr. Burnett said of the show's current reliance on reruns. "Guest hosts may be a great way to go."

The Late Show's status will be re-evaluated in another week. This, as celebrities (some only hours after Mr. Letterman's surgery) have been offering to guest-host the show. CBS, meanwhile, is honoring Mr. Letterman's status as a broadcasting icon by saying nothing, not wanting to upset him. "It would look pretty cruel and heartless to speculate about who we would put in his chair," said a CBS source.

But given that networks are in the moneymaking -- and not care-giving -- business, the network is mulling alternative plans, should serious audience erosion become evident as the weeks of Late Show reruns mount. Sources say, however, that Mr. Letterman's contract gives him the final call on guest hosts.

Audience erosion isn't apparent yet, as Late Show reruns last week performed as expected, with about a 10 percent drop-off from Late Show originals, said David Poltrack, CBS' executive vice president in charge of research. This season, The Late Show has been averaging about 4 million viewers, an increase over last year but still about 2 million viewers behind rival The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on NBC, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The media, meanwhile, have been having a good time suggesting Mr. Letterman's temporary replacement. Among the names floated: Jerry Seinfeld, CBS comedy stars Ray Romano and Kevin James, comedian Chris Rock and Mr. Stern.

"If David wanted to have guest hosts, anyone he called would respond," said George Shapiro, Mr. Seinfeld's manager, adding that Mr. Seinfeld feels the call has to come from Mr. Letterman -- not CBS.

Dr. Selvyn Bleifer, a cardiologist and associate clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, says most people are "fully recovered" from a surgery like Mr. Letterman's by the end of six weeks, and that some of his patients have been back to work in two weeks.Filling in for Dave

Who do you think would be the best substitute host for The Late Show while David Letterman is recovering from heart surgery?

Some have suggested Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Kevin James, Chris Rock, Howard Stern, or recent Late Show guest Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Augusta Chronicle will conduct a poll until midnight today. Results will be announced Thursday.