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Why the TV World Once Doubted David Letterman

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

Late Night Before Letterman

The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen, episode 201: (l-r center) Jayne Meadows, Steve Allen (2nd left) Skitch Henderson (4th row right) Patricia Marshall (5th row l-r) Pat Kirby, Eydie Gorme (top row l-r) Andy Williams, Steve Lawrence
The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen: (l-r center) Jayne Meadows, Steve Allen (2nd left) Skitch Henderson (4th row right) Patricia Marshall (5th row l-r) Pat Kirby, Eydie Gorme (top row l-r) Andy Williams and Steve Lawrence, in 1955NBC/NBCU Photo Bank—Getty Images
The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen, episode 201: (l-r center) Jayne Meadows, Steve Allen (2nd left) Skitch Henderson (4th row right) Patricia Marshall (5th row l-r) Pat Kirby, Eydie Gorme (top row l-r) Andy Williams, Steve Lawrence
The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen, July 1 1956: (l-r) Andy Griffith, Steve Allen, and Elvis Presley perform a parody of Country & Western television shows
'The Steve Allen Show' circa 1957.
The Tonight Show with Jack Parr: Season 1 -- (l-r) Tedi Thurman, host Jack Paar, Fran Warren, Johnny Johnson, Mary Mayo, Jose Melis
The Tonight Show with Jack Parr: (l-r) Jack Paar, John F. Kennedy.
The Tonight Show with Jack Parr: (l-r) Jack Paar, Hugh Downs, Jose Melis.
The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson: (l-r) Ed McMahon, host Johnny Carson during the first show on October 1, 1962 .
The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson: Host Johnny Carson in his office in March, 1965.
The Joey Bishop Show: (l-r) Regis Philbin, Joey Bishop, Jack Benney - 1968.
TV talk show host Merv Griffin (R) interviewing actor Marlon Brando, 1968.
Merv Griffin warming up the audience before the show, 1969.
The Dick Cavett Show: Airdate: May 2, 1969.
The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson: (l-r) Announcer Ed McMahon and host Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent on November 17, 1970.
The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson: (l-r) Boxers Ken Norton, Muhammad Ali, host Johnny Carson, 1973
The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson: (l-r) Comedian Jay Leno during an interview with guest host David Letterman on July 4, 1979
The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson: (l-r) Announcer Ed McMahon, Actor/comedian Robin Williams, host Johnny Carson on October 14, 1981.
The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson: (l-r) Talk show host David Letterman during an interview with host Johnny Carson on January 2, 1981.
Comedian and late night television host, David Letterman, warms up his NBC studio audience prior to the taping of his popular 1982 New York, NY, television show at Rockefeller Center, 1982.
The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen: (l-r center) Jayne Meadows, Steve Allen (2nd left) Skitch Henderson (4th row righ
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NBC/NBCU Photo Bank—Getty Images
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