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NBC declares late-night victory

Ten years into the deeply personal competition for supremacy in late-night television, NBC has decided the time is finally right to send CBS and its star, David Letterman, a pointed and very public message:

"There is no more late-night war," said Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Entertainment, echoing a claim he first made in the summer that NBC's Tonight Show had definitively vanquished CBS's Late Show.

The current numbers appear to back up NBC's chest-beating assertions. In the first five weeks of the television season, Jay Leno has opened up his biggest lead in five years. Leno draws 2-million more viewers than Letterman's Late Show, 5.8-million to 3.8-million. And Leno enjoys his biggest edge ever in the rivalry for 18-to-49-year-old viewers, the ones NBC _ and many advertisers _ most covet.

Not surprisingly, the Letterman side has some aggressive counterarguments, from the weakness of much of CBS's lineup of shows at 10 p.m. and the late news of CBS stations to new quirks in the television ratings system.

But the show's lagging performance and Letterman's apparent disinclination to take special steps to deal with the ratings falloff cannot help but be worrisome to CBS executives. The Late Show gave CBS a huge profit center it never had before the network hired Letterman 10 years ago, and if the ratings trend continues, tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue may be at stake.

Leno's ratings lead is not new. He has held it, with varying margins, for the past eight years. But with the biggest lead in five years, NBC executives are willing, even eager, to go for Letterman's jugular. NBC also seems bent on trying to redress critical slights that Leno has suffered while Letterman has been consistently winning awards and praise as a comic genius.

"I think it's hard for the national media to accept the fact that Jay is so dominant," Zucker said. "The national media has always been more drawn to the dark, brooding cynicism of Dave, rather than the populist wit of Jay."

Rob Burnett, one of Letterman's executive producers, offers the consistent CBS response to Leno's ratings lead: No matter what the ratings say, Letterman remains the more original, more worthy talent.

"There are two parts of the so-called late-night war," Burnett said. "One is: Who's the best? That part of the war is over. Dave won."

(Like Zucker, Burnett was serving as a surrogate commentator because both stars declined to comment.)

Burnett and CBS executives do offer some mitigating circumstances for Letterman's flagging ratings fortunes. Thanks to shows like Law & Order and ER, NBC has a much stronger lineup at 10 p.m., the better to funnel more viewers to late local news, which is also far stronger on NBC stations, and then into The Tonight Show.

It has also been making more money. According to a Nielsen cost analysis based on last season's three ratings sweep months, 30-second commercials during Tonight cost about $65,000, while those on Late Show cost about $53,000. Over a season that differential could mean about $40-million extra in revenue for NBC.