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NBC BLEW IT - LETTERMAN IS THE NEW KING OF THE NIGHT

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The folks at NBC expected David Letterman to be in second place by now.

Heck, the folks at CBS thought Jay Leno would have taken over the ratings lead - at least in total households - long before this.Even your local TV editor didn't think Letterman's lead would last more than a couple of weeks.

We were all wrong.

Despite starting with a decided disadvantage, Letterman's "Late Show" is establishing itself as the late-night show of choice.

And that lead is not based on Letterman's huge numbers for the first week, the second week or even the third week.

The latest numbers available (up to and including Oct. 8) for the regular season that began Sept. 20 show Letterman with a 5.3 rating and an 18 share, ABC's "Night- line" with a 4.9/16 and NBC's "Tonight Show" with a 4.1/13. (A ratings point equals 942,000 homes; the share is the percentage of homes actually watching TV.)

What makes this all the more remarkable is that NBC late-night lineup is so much stronger than CBS's. While Leno airs following the news (11:35 p.m. on the coasts, 10:35 p.m. elsewhere) in basically the entire country, Letterman is seen then in only two-thirds of the nation.

In the other third - including Utah - Letterman airs a half-hour later than Leno. And that half-hour delay means there are fewer viewers available out there.

But wait - it gets even more remarkable. For the week ending Oct. 8, the "Late Show" was delayed four nights by the baseball playoffs - an average of an hour per night on the East Coast. And Letterman still beat Leno by four-tenths of a rating point and five share points.

Astounding.

What makes CBS's victory even sweeter is that among the younger demographic groups so desired by advertisers, Letterman's lead over Leno is about 2-to-1. And we're not talking just kids here, we're talking viewers aged 18-49.

All of which might not mean much except that the ratings translate into dollars when the commercials are sold.

CBS started out be selling "Late Show" spots for about $30,000 apiece. That figure has risen to a reported $45,000.

NBC is still at that $30,000 threshold with "Tonight" - lagging behind "Nightline's" $35,000.

In other words, CBS is making 50 percent more off Letterman than NBC is making off Leno - minus Letterman's $14 million annual salary, of course.

All of which is terribly ironic, because Letterman is doing exactly what NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield thought he couldn't - succeeding big time in the earlier time slot and attracting a highly salable audience.

(Reportedly, Littlefield prevailed in a dispute with his boss, NBC Chairman Bob Wright, who was leaning toward giving Letterman "The Tonight Show" as late as this past January.)

Leno was supposed to improve on Johnny Carson's demographics - meaning, attract younger viewers. And he was doing some of that, until Letterman debuted on CBS.

(There are even unending - but unconfirmed - rumors that NBC forced Carson out to go for those younger viewers.)

Leno's numbers aren't bad, but they're increasingly older, more rural - and less valuable.

One has to wonder how Letterman would be doing if he had NBC's superior late-night station lineup. If Littlefield had given him "The Tonight Show."

Any way you look at it, NBC blew it.

And while Letterman and CBS are laughing all the way to the bank, Littlefield's reportedly precarious position at NBC can only be more shaky in light of such dramatic evidence of his blunder.

LUCK RUNNING OUT?: Conan O'Brien began his stint as Letterman's replacement on NBC's "Late Night" as the luckiest man in show business.

Debuting a week after talk-show abomination "The Chevy Chase Show," O'Brien looked OK in comparison - and his reviews reflected that.

But in the face of steadily declining ratings, his future is by no means secure.

O'Brien's "Late Night" is OK if you happen to be awake anyway - but there's certainly no reason to make an appointment to stay up and watch it.