Yeah I know that overnight ratings don't tell the whole story but they still matter and, at one time, they mattered a lot. Let me take you back to a time when overnights were the crack of the business and tell you a Holiday story I like to call "The Miracle of the Overnight Christmas Eve Ratings" and how a young Network Research executive asked Santa for ratings that didn't exist and received this amazing baseball jacket as his Christmas present.
I first told this story in May after David Letterman said his farewells to late night television but with Christmas approaching I thought I would retell it in hopes of it becoming a Holiday classic.
Here it is.
I was at NBC for the entire run of “Late Night with David Letterman”. I remember going to a taping with my very pregnant wife. After our daughter was born Dave kept us company every Saturday afternoon as we sat down to watch the week’s taped episodes while our daughter took a long nap.
Full disclosure. I was down in Florida for the famous meeting to determine whether Jay Leno or David 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 had successful careers as late night hosts.
One of my prize possessions from my time at the Peacock is a leather sleeved LATE NIGHT baseball jacket that arrived at 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 on Christmas Day 1990. Now that Dave has retired I thought I would share the story with you. Let’s just say it takes a certain type of person to host a late night show. I’ll leave it at that.
Back in 1990 I was running Audience Research (i.e. the ratings guy) at NBC in New York. This was a time before emails, smart phones 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 that could be accessed by NBC execs and others.
There are certain days during the year when AC Nielsen would not release numbers. One of those days was Christmas Day. Christmas Day 1990 was a Tuesday and, on Christmas Eve, both of our late night shows were repeats.
Christmas morning around 10AM I receive 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 Eve rating for Late Night. I told her that 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 calls me back. Dave didn’t believe her and insisted that he get the overnights. I told her I would if I could but I can’t and that I would be happy to explain it to Dave myself. She calls me back a few minutes later and is 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.” 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 factor in it being a repeat and the lower viewing levels for Christmas Eve”. 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 asking for 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.
Thanks for everything Dave.