With all due respect to Mad Men and the marketing mavens at AMC, tonight's departure of David Letterman from late night actually is the end of an era in television. No other host — not even Johnny Carson — has hosted a late-night show as long as he will have when he ends his 33-year career tonight. His creative impact on the medium is undeniable (as has been documented by several recent stories here on Vulture). But Letterman was hugely influential on the business side of television as well. Sure, peer and often nemesis Jay Leno generally drew bigger ratings and probably made more money for his bosses. Leno, however, was a caretaker figure: After Carson reluctantly passed him the torch, his job was to keep NBC's late-night flame burning, to preserve the status quo. Save for a few bumpy years, Leno did exactly that, and exceedingly well. By contrast, Letterman was a disruptive force. Here's why:
He turned late night into a multi-network game.
Before Letterman launched Late Show in 1993, NBC pretty much had late night to itself. Sure, others had tried to tackle the decades-long dominance of the Peacock's The Tonight Show. Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin all went up against Johnny Carson in the 1960s and '70s, while Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers, Alan Thicke, Chevy Chase, and others gave it a go in the 1980s and '90s. They all pretty much failed. Arsenio Hall famously didnot fail: His syndicated show was red-hot for a few years in the early 1990s, stealing away some young viewers during the end of Carson's reign (and the beginning of Jay Leno's). But while Hall lasted over 1,000 episodes and shook things up, he didn't create an enduring franchise. Letterman did.
Before Late Show, CBS's weeknight late-night historically had been home to repeats of either movies (The CBS Late Movie), reruns, and original episodes of cop shows (Crimetime After Primetime) or news (Nightwatch). In other words, filler. Letterman changed all that, creating a show that, at its peak not long after it premiered in 1993, managed to draw more viewers than Tonight. No other late-night talk show had ever done that (at least not on a regular basis). It's true that the Leno-hosted Tonighteventually pulled back into the lead, and that under Jimmy Fallon, NBC's storied franchise has pulled even further ahead of its rivals. But Late Showhas survived for nearly a quarter-century now, making far more in profits than CBS ever did in the era of 11:30 p.m. reruns. Just as important, it will continue after Letterman. Assuming Stephen Colbert doesn't crash and burn, it seems likely that Letterman will have created a late-night staple on par with Tonight and Saturday Night Live.
David Letterman, Late Night, through the years
How David Letterman disrupted television
David Letterman at reception in NBC's Studio 6A January 19, 1982 at the announcement of new NBC comedy show "Late Night With David Letterman". (AP Photo/Perez)
FILE - In this Feb. 1, 1982 file photo, host David Letterman, right, and guest Bill Murray appear at the taping of the debut of "Late Night with David Letterman" in New York. Murray's 44th and final appearance Tuesday, May 19, 2015, will mark the end of late-night television's most unique and enduring host-guest relationships. After 33 years in late night and 22 years hosting CBS' "Late Show," Letterman will retire on May 20. (AP Photo/Nancy Kaye, File)
David Letterman, host of NBC-TV's "Late Night with David Letterman, " is taken from a tank of water and placed onto a scale in New York while wearing a specially designed suit of sponges, Feb. 14, 1985. Letterman weighed 190 lbs. before and a whopping 500 lbs. after soaking up about 25 gallons of water, during taping for Thursday night's show. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Comedian David Letterman shown June 5, 1985. (AP Photo/Wally Fong)
Comedian David Letterman holds his award at the 37th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony in Pasadena, Ca., Sunday, Sept. 22, 1985. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
David Letterman in his office at NBC on Jan. 28, 1986 after taping his show. (AP Photo/Mario Suriani)
Performer Paul Simon listens to David Letterman on the set of NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman" in New York, Sept. 11, 1986. Simon was promoting his latest album "Graceland" which features African music. (AP Photo/David Bookstaver)
Farmer Bob Corbett, left, of North Lewisburg, Ohio, shepherds his prize-winning boar named Hog Chief past host David Letterman on the set of NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman" in New York, April 24, 1987. The boar, who had lost of few of his 1,205 pounds when he went on the show, is working to set a world weight record for pigs next August. (AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett)
Bette Davis is a guest of "Late Night With David Letterman" on the set at NBC studios, May 26, 1987. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)
NBC television's David Letterman, left, guards first base while CBS television's Bob Schieffer, substituting for Dan Rather, keeps one foot planted on the base at New York's Yankee Stadium, Aug. 22, 1987. CBS won the annual challenge between "Late Night With David Letterman" and CBS' "Evening News" with a score of 14-3. (AP Photo/Rick Maiman)
Talk show host David Letterman, center poses with baseball legends Ted Williams, right, and Joe Garagiola, Jan. 1993. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this Jan. 14, 1993 file photo, talk-show host David Letterman announces his move from NBC to CBS at a news conference at CBS Studios in New York. Letterman's show "Late Show with David Letterman," on CBS ran against NBC's "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno. After 33 years in late night and 22 years hosting CBS' "Late Show," Letterman will retire on May 20. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
David Letterman, host of NBC's Late Night, speaks during a news conference in New York on July 15, 1993 announcing his move to CBS. Letterman earned an Emmy nomination for best variety, music or comedy series on Thursday, July 22, 1993. (AP Photo/ Alex Brandon)
David Letterman, right, and Bill Murray wave from the side door of the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on Monday, August 30, 1993. David Letterman brings his late-night lunacy to CBS with guests including comedian-actor Bill Murray and Joel, as well as what the network billed as ?big surprises.? (AP Photo/Jim Cooper)
Television talks show veteran Tom Snyder, left, laughs during an appearance on CBS? ?Late Show with David Letterman,? on Friday, April 22, 1994 in New York. Industry sources have said that Snyder is currently the frontrunner to host the network?s newest talk show that will air at 12:30 a.m., following Letterman?s show. (AP Photo/Alan Singer)
David Letterman is shown during his opening monologue as host of the 67th annual Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Ca., Monday, March 27, 1995. (AP Photo/Michael Caulfield)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: US Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore (R) with talk show host David Letterman 14 September, 2000 after the taping of Letterman's show at the Sullivan Theater in New York City. AFP PHOTO/ Luke FRAZZA (Photo credit should read LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Republican presidental candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush (L) poses for photographers with David Letterman after concluding taping of the 19 October 2000 Late Show with David Letterman in New York. Bush read the Top Ten list poking fun at what he might do if elected. AFP Photo by Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 24: In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, 'Late Show' television host David Letterman entertains soldiers at the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters December 24, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo by Reynaldo Ramon/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images)
Team co-owner David Letterman reacts as one of the team's drivers, Buddy Rice, wins the rain-shortened Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sunday, May 30, 2004, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Tom Strattman)
Late night talk show host David Letterman salutes "Tonight" show host Johnny Carson during a tribute to the late entertainer during the 57th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2005, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
David Letterman, left, applauds musician Paul McCartney after his performance atop the Ed Sullivan Theater marquee during a taping of "The Late Show with David Letterman" in New York, Wednesday, July 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
President Barack Obama is pictured with host David Letterman during a break at a taping of CBS The Late Show with David Letterman, Monday, Sept. 21, 2009, at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
David Letterman appears onstage at the âThe Comedy Awardsâ presented by Comedy Central in New York, Saturday, March 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Late night talk show host David Letterman speaks at the International Rescue Committee Freedom Award Dinner at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on Wednesday Nov. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Eric Reichbaum)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with David Letterman on the set of the "Late Show With David Letterman" at the Ed Sullivan Theater, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Ball State University alumnus David Letterman, right, host of CBS's "Late Show," interviews Oprah Winfrey at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., Monday, Nov. 26, 2012. The conversation is part of the David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 5: David Letterman films a segment throwing footballs at a moving cab while at Late Show with David Letterman on May 5, 2014 in New York City. Credit: RW/MediaPunch/IPX
In this photo provided by CBS, Serena Williams talks with host David on the set of the âLate Show with David Letterman,â Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, in New York. Williams will compete in the U.S. Open which begins on Aug. 25. (AP Photo/CBS, John Paul Filo)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 7: David Letterman seen outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City on October 7, 2014. Credit: RW/MediaPunch/IPX
FILE - In this March 2, 2015 file photo, David Letterman attends "An Evening of SeriousFun Celebrating the Legacy of Paul Newman", hosted by the SeriousFun Children's Network at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. After 33 years hosting late night talk shows, Letterman will retire on May 20. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
NEW YORK - MAY 7: Tina Fey takes off her dress after her last appearance on the CBS Late Show with David Letterman, Thursday May 7, 2015 on the CBS Television Network (Photo by John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images)
FILE - In this May 4, 2015 file photo, host David Letterman smiles during a break at a taping of "The Late Show with David Letterman," at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. After 33 years in late night and 22 years hosting CBS' "Late Show," Letterman will retire on May 20. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
A picture of David Letterman hangs outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. After 33 years and 6,028 broadcasts of his late-night show, David Letterman is retiring. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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What's more, by proving Tonight was not invincible, Letterman inspired other networks to get into the game. ABC, having previously focused on news with Nightline and news-comedy hybrid Politically Incorrect, followed the path blazed by Letterman with its 2003 premiere of Jimmy Kimmel Live. Comedy Central, which birthed Politically Incorrect before it moved to ABC, saw Letterman's success and upped its game with the introduction of The Daily Show in 1996 (followed by The Colbert Reportin 2005). When Conan O'Brien got squeezed out of the broadcast game in 2010, late night was strong enough to support the move of his brand to cable — to TBS, where his show is scheduled to run through at least 2018. It's possible, of course, that many of these shows would have existed had Letterman simply decided to stay put as host of Late Night after NBC chose Leno to replace Carson on Tonight. The explosion of original cable programming in the 2000s probably would've spread to late night no matter what. But Letterman proved that The Tonight Show need not be a monolith, and that there was big money to be made in late night by networks not named NBC. That's the stuff of legacies.
He used his show to create viral moments long before the age of YouTube.
In an exit interview with Rolling Stone, Letterman noted that unlike his more recent rivals, his Late Show hasn't been successful at generating those viral-video moments that now seem as much a part of the late-night formula as a desk and band. But here's the thing: Even if Letterman isn't a big player in that game right now, he was actually far ahead of the curve in using his show to create Big Moments that lived on beyond their initial broadcast. His run on NBC's Late Night saw the creation of all sorts of signature segments that evolved late night away from the sketch-based comedy for which Carson was known. Before we all wasted hours staring at cat videos on YouTube, Letterman had his "Stupid Pet Tricks" (a segment that actually began on his short-lived NBC morning show) and"Stupid Human Tricks." Dave dropping crap from the top of tall buildings? His suit of Velcro? Elevator races? All would have gone viral had the internet been widely available in the 1980s.
Instead, those of us who were fans of Dave back in the day talked about these segments between classes or work shifts and shared fuzzy VHS tapes of his best bits. And when Letterman moved to CBS (and 11:30 p.m.), one of his iconic segments — the Top Ten list — became so popular, radio stations paid for the right to rebroadcast them via a syndicated package sold by Westwood One.
He used his power to create TV franchises beyond late night.
Jimmy Fallon's "Lip Sync Battle" sketch this spring spawned a successful spinoff show on Spike, a not insignificant achievement. But that's nothing compared to the way Letterman has used his Late Show platform (and production banner Worldwide Pants) to create programming elsewhere on television. Most notable, he and his producers signed a promising young stand-up comic who'd appeared on the show to a development deal — and the result was Ray Romano's Everybody Loves Raymond, one of the most successful sitcoms of the past two decades. Worldwide Pants also controlled the 12:35 a.m. CBS time slot behind Late Show for decades, giving Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson big career boosts and providing established late-night icon Tom Snyder one more moment in the network sun.
Longtime Letterman producers Jon Beckman and Rob Burnett used Pants to create NBC's critically loved cult dramedy Ed, which ran four seasons. The duo also gave Sofia Vergara a break before Modern Family, casting her in their 2007 ABC sitcom The Knights of Prosperity. And Letterman's cachet allowed his friend, comic Bonnie Hunt, the chance to star in two short-lived network sitcoms. To be sure, Letterman didn't pioneer the notion of a late-night host expanding his empire to prime time. Mentor Johnny Carson used his production company to co-create NBC's TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes series and the sitcom Amen. But no late-night host has wielded that power as successfully as Letterman did.