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In part, Leno is enjoying the residue of "must-see TV," NBC's giddy prime-time resurgence. At the same time, Letterman has been hurt by the stunning decline of CBS's schedule. Then, too, over the past year, Fox has wooed away some key local stations from CBS, diminishing the network's reach. Finally there's the wild card: ABC's Night-line, which is having a monster 1995 thanks to big news stories.
A more important consideration, of course, is the quality of the shows themselves. The battle between Late Show and The Tonight Show is won, I believe, in the first 20 minutes. Leno, it is generally conceded, has the stronger opening gambit with a traditional joke-crammed monologue. And he has worked unfiaggingly to improve the pre-guest portion of his show, quickening the tempo by splicing in more comedy sketches, sight gags and surprises. Letterman's less structured approach can be beguiling, but on many nights his opening segment has a tendency to drift. Even the Top 10 List has been uneven lately.
How can Dave recoup his edge, especially after losing both his head writer (to a planned Bonnie Hunt sitcom from Letterman's production company) and his most veteran director-producer? Let's see. Leno's fortunes began to rise about the same time bandleader Bran-ford Marsalis left. Maybe Letterman should try jettisoning Paul Shaffer and his tired shtick. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
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