Six months into his late-night gig for CBS, Tom Snyder found he was more than a talk show host. He was a network asset.
And darn proud of it. Proposed new owner Westinghouse Electric Corp. may choke a bit on CBS' third-place primetime schedule, but the Snyder-David Letterman nightcap is a smooth gulp."I picked up a newspaper and it talked about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the network. I'm pleased to note it listed as a CBS strength the late-night lineup," Snyder said.
That "The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder" is prospering might come as a surprise to those who predicted the veteran broadcaster was the wrong type (read: old) for discriminating audiences (read: young).
But Snyder, at 59, has proved he still has the chops to draw the right guests and the viewers who want to see them - enough to keep up with the likes of baby-faced competitor Conan O'Brien.
NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" has maintained the 1.9 average rating it had pre-Snyder. But Snyder's show is averaging a respectable 1.5 rating, according to CBS (each point represents 959,000 TV households).
In the 13 TV markets where the two shows go head-to-head, Snyder matches O'Brien's 2.3 average rating.
And those advertiser-coveted 18-49 viewers? O'Brien attracts an average 1.2 million; Snyder is just shy of 1 million with a 980,000 per-show average.
That's with Snyder's disadvantage - and we're not talking about silver locks.
When his "Late Late Show" began, it aired live in just 38 percent of the country. It showed later on tape in some markets because those CBS stations had existing commitments to air syndicated fare like "Cheers."
A few markets, aren't airing Snyder at all.
In Utah, the show will make its debut on Monday, Sept. 11 at 12:35 a.m. on Ch. 2 - the day that that station becomes the local CBS outlet.
"Late Late Show" has improved to a 53 percent clearance, but that's still akin to swinging with one hand tied: O'Brien's show has a 96 percent clearance rate.
CBS hopes to improve the odds as syndication contracts expire and more stations put Snyder on live at his appointed 11:35 p.m. time period, after "The Late Show With David Letterman."
(Utah's Ch. 2 is one of those with a syndication contract it must
honor. Thus, for the first year, the syndicated talk show "Carnie" will air at 11:35 p.m., between Letterman and Snyder. But Snyder will move up to the time slot right after Letterman in the fall of 1996.)
How does Snyder feel about matters at the halfway mark of Year One? Routed from bed for an early interview - 10:30 a.m., actually, but the guy doesn't get to sleep until 2 or 3 a.m. - he seems pretty pleased.
His rat-tat-tat television cadence is slowed a bit by morning hoarseness, but it doesn't take him long to pick up steam.
"I don't really play the ratings game that much because I realize that at this particular time, considering the clearance handicap we have, ratings do not really reflect what we're doing," says Snyder.
So how to judge his performance? Content, he offers: "What we've done is given the television audience an alternative."
Unlike the comic emphasis of Leno, Letterman and O'Brien, Snyder's call-in show "relies on intelligent and, I hope, entertaining conversation to drive it."
It is "the last bastion, the last outpost in the legacy of David Susskind and David Frost and Jack Parr - and, to a certain degree, Johnny Carson - in doing programs that are driven by conversation," Snyder says.
Top talkers all, and Snyder ranks with them. He started out as a radio and TV reporter and got his first television talk show, coincidentally enough, on a Westinghouse-owned station in the 1960s.
"On Channel 3 in Philadelphia at 9 o'clock in the morning," he recalls. "And what a concept: Tom and a guest and phone calls. What a revolutionary concept, right?"
Snyder's talent for lively inquisition was further honed by nine years on NBC's "Tomorrow," television's first wee-hours talk show (airing from 1973-82).
On "Tomorrow," a curl of cigarette smoke added atmosphere. The TV nicotine habit is broken, but not the spell. Snyder still works his magic on guests ranging from writer Pat Conroy to Tom Selleck to Oral Roberts.
He's unsurprised that younger viewers are among his fans.
"As I said to some people before we started, you have no idea what's coming here. If it's good, if it's entertaining, people will watch it. And they don't care about the age of the guest, they don't care about the age of the host."