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Letterman's Speedy Recovery

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, February 3, 2000; Page C01

Looks like NBC late-nighter Jay Leno isn't going to get that free ride during the February sweeps after all. A well-informed source tells The TV Column that David Letterman could be back behind the desk of his CBS late-night talk show as soon as Valentine's Day.

Letterman, who exited CBS's "Late Show" unexpectedly 2 1/2 weeks ago for emergency quintuple-bypass surgery, was seen back in his office on Monday, sporting a full beard, our sources say. According to one of our spies, the avid runner called his doctor last week to see when he could start pounding the pavement again.

This may be nuts for Letterman, but it's very good for CBS. Recovery time for his type of surgery can run up to eight weeks, which left the network facing four weeks of "Late Show" reruns during the upcoming sweeps contest, when ratings are used to set ad rates for the coming months. The February derby starts tonight and ends on March 1.

Instead, the network may be looking at gigantic ratings when Dave comes back--a fact not lost on publicists to the stars, who will no doubt clamor to get their clients booked on the show that night.

How big are we talking here? We're talking even bigger than on Jan. 12, when Letterman snagged Hillary Rodham Clinton for the show, yielding 11 million viewers--the largest "Late Show" audience since Dave's first week on CBS in August 1993, back when he was pounding Leno.

Thanks to that one night, Letterman beat Leno for the week--for the first time since 1995.

Letterman's publicist, Steve Rubenstein, confirmed that his client went to the office on Monday. "Dave's doing great," he said. Asked when the Gap-Toothed One might be back on air, Rubenstein said "sooner rather than later" but that no date had been set.

Sure, David Letterman got Hillary Clinton. But his CBS late-night colleague Craig Kilborn has one-upped him and snagged a booking with Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who actually holds public office. Glickman will appear on Monday's show.

Kilborn began his campaign to get Glickman the very night that Letterman hosted Clinton, with a challenge that if the Cabinet member wanted "to make it in the world of 'agriculture,' " he had to "pay the toll right here on 'The Craig Kilborn Show.' " (We hope someone informed the host that his show is actually called "Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn.")

As the days dragged on and Glickman's people could not come to terms with Kilborn's bookers, Kilborn turned up the heat: "Let me tell you something, Secretary Glickman, if you want to make it in this country, you've got to come through customs right here on the 'Late Late Show.' . . . We'll get to the bottom of this whole 'agriculture' thing," he promised viewers several days later.

Now that they've booked Glickman, "Late Late Show" promises the interview won't be a bunch of puffball questions like the ones Dave asked Hillary.

"We've got a lot of questions about agriculture," said "Late Late Show" executive producer Billy Kimball. "We're not opposed to it--we're certainly open to the idea of agriculture, but we don't think that agriculture is entitled to a free ride. We think Dan Glickman has some explaining to do and we're going to ask him the hard questions about the growing season."

Glickman says he's ready. "I relish the idea of going on national television, even if it is a late-night comedy show, to talk about what we do with the Department of Agriculture. He challenged me and we've taken up the challenge.

"I've got the image and the dignity of this department at stake here," Glickman told The TV Column.

Glickman insists he's not studying up to ace Kilborn's trademark Five Questions quiz, but admits he is working on a routine for next Monday's appearance. "I sat down and watched the show, and the successful guests are the ones that know how to work the audience," he said. In other words, not much different from politics.

Seems Ted Turner is going to lose another important woman in his life. A PBS search committee has recommended that Pat Mitchell, head of CNN Productions as well as Time Inc. Television, replace former PBS president Ervin Duggan. An announcement could come as soon as Monday.

The PBS board is set to huddle over the weekend to consider the committee's recommendation. PBS has been looking for a replacement since Duggan announced his resignation in October.

CNN declined to comment on the report; a PBS rep said, "The search committee has agreed on a candidate and will present to the board of directors this weekend," and nothing more.

At the recently concluded winter TV press tour, interim president John Swope said the committee was looking for someone who could "do a better job of building consensus among our station members."

Mitchell's resume includes years spent producing documentaries, both as a Turner television exec and as an independent filmmaker. Her independent production experience is sure to go over big with station execs, many of whom have battled the notion of turning PBS into a more traditional TV network with a strong centralized management.

She began her TV career in Boston, producing and anchoring news programs and serving as the host of a program aimed at women. You may remember her as a substitute host for Jane Pauley on NBC's "Today" show in the 1980s.

Mitchell's been with Turner since December '92. In her current job, she is responsible for nonfiction programming projects for CNN, TBS Superstation and other Turner and Time Warner networks. Documentaries produced under Mitchell include the 24-hour "Cold War" and the 10-episode "Millennium" series. She's also executive producer of CNN's Sunday night documentary series "CNN Perspectives" and is the executive in charge of production for two of CNN's three "NewsStand" programs. She suffered disappointment last August when Time Warner suddenly scrapped plans to launch the Women's Network cable channel, which she was to have run.



 
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