The Aug. 30, 1993, cover of TIME
Cover Credit: C. F. PAYNE
By Lily Rothman
May 20, 2015

The airing of the final episode of The Late Show with David Letterman on Wednesday marks the end of a long and legendary late-night run. Night after night for more than two decades, Letterman has worked to make his The Tonight Show rival into an institution of its own.

Back in 1993, however, that was not exactly a foregone conclusion.

As Letterman prepared to move to the 11:35 slot on CBS, launching his Late Show opposite The Tonight Show, observers wondered whether his style would translate. TIME devoted a cover story to the question, and explained to readers where that doubt was coming from:

The TV question of the moment is whether Letterman’s offbeat, sometimes abrasive style will work at 11:30, where the mainstream audience is more accustomed to the enthusiasm that Carson (and now Leno) brought to the job of helping celebrities promote their new movies. Industry prognosticators are cautious, if not downright skeptical. Leno, inheritor of the powerful Tonight franchise, is generally regarded as the front runner, if only because Letterman’s show will have a weaker station lineup: more than 30% of CBS affiliates will be delaying his program by half an hour or more to make room for syndicated fare. CBS is projecting that Letterman will average a 4 rating — a big jump over its current ratings, though still behind Leno’s (who averaged 4.6 last season). Some advertising gurus think even that is too optimistic. After an initial burst of curiosity tune-in, predicts Gene DeWitt, president of a New York City media management firm, the audience will drift back to Leno. ”CBS’s audience seems to skew a bit older [than Letterman’s]. It’s kind of like putting a SoHo comedian into the Fontainebleau hotel.”

But, as TIME’s Richard Zoglin presciently pointed out, Letterman’s ironic style was becoming more and more mainstream, so the experiment just might work. Indeed.

Read TIME’s 1993 cover story about Letterman, here in the TIME Vault: New Dave Dawning


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