Back in the 1980s when I started my TV career in audience research at NBC, local market overnight ratings were the crack of the business. We would not get national ratings until late afternoon, so all we had to go by were the “overnights.”
These ratings were widely circulated in the morning, and the people at “Late Night with David Letterman” were on the distribution list. In the spirit of the holiday season, I would like to tell you a story I like to call “The David Letterman Christmas Miracle.” It’s about how a young network research executive asked Santa for ratings that didn’t exist and received this amazing gift in return.
Here’s the story of the David Letterman Christmas Miracle:
I was at NBC for the entire run of “Late Night with David Letterman.” I remember going to a very early taping of the show with my very pregnant Masked Wife. After the Masked Daughter was born, Dave kept us company every Saturday afternoon. We recorded the week’s episodes and would watch them while our daughter took a long nap.
Full disclosure: I was down in Florida for the famous meeting to determine whether Jay Leno or Letterman would succeed the great Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show.” I fully supported my boss Warren Littlefield’s decision to put Jay behind the desk. He asked me to come down to the GE meeting in Florida for advice, guidance and support. I believe we made the right broadcasting decision, and both men went on to successful careers.
One of my prized possessions from my time at the Peacock is a leather-sleeved “Late Night” baseball jacket that arrived on my desk in early 1991. It was from someone who worked closely with Dave, and it was in appreciation of a little thing I did for her the day after Christmas in 1990. That morning I learned that it takes a certain type of person to host a late-night show.
At the time I was running audience research (i.e., I was the ratings guy) at NBC in New York. This was a time before emails, smartphones and personal computers. Processing overnight ratings was a bitch, and a few of us had company laptops that hooked us into the NBC mainframe where we could pull the overnight ratings. It was a very elaborate process. We would then call in to a ratings hotline and read the numbers so NBC execs and others could access them.
There are certain days during the year when Nielsen would not release numbers. One of those was Christmas Day. In 1990, Christmas was a Tuesday, and both of our late-night shows aired repeats.
About 10 a.m. the day after Christmas, I received a call at home from one of David Letterman’s top assistants. She was the individual who provided Dave with the ratings each morning. She called me (I was amazed that she could track down my home number) because Dave wanted the Christmas Day ratings. I told her Nielsen was not releasing ratings and that Dave would have to wait until the following day. She thanked me, and I figured that was that.
Well, a few minutes later, she called me back. Dave didn’t believe her and insisted that he get the overnights. I told her I would if I could, but I couldn’t and that I would be happy to explain why to Dave. She called me back a few minutes later, now in full panic mode.
“Dave doesn’t want to talk to you — he just wants his ratings, and I think he will fire me if I don’t get them to him,” she said. I told her, “Look, I don’t have them but I can make something up that will be pretty close, since late-night ratings don’t change all that much, and I will adjust the numbers to reflect it being repeats and lower HUTs [Households Using Television] on Christmas Day.”
So we became co-conspirators, and I produced an overnight rating. She was very grateful, and I figured I had done my good deed for the day. A few minutes go by and I get another call from Dave’s assistant. “I’m sorry for this, but Dave is now wants the overnight ratings for EACH MARKET.” I told her to give me an hour and I proceeded to generate made up ratings for EVERY metered market.
Dave never found out that those ratings were made up (they turned out to be pretty close to the real numbers), and I got a cool “Late Night with David Letterman” baseball jacket out of it.