David Letterman

So, David Letterman will stay at CBS at least until the fall of 2010.

This is great but not particularly surprising news. Letterman is still the best late-night host on TV, and at its worst his "Late Show" is better than Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" is at its best.

Yes, Leno gets better ratings. But we're talking quality here, not quantity.

The reason Letterman's contract extension comes as no big surprise is because of what the future holds for the host of "Tonight." Leno steps down in 2009 when he hands the reins to Conan O'Brien, so Letterman will outlast Leno by at least a year.

Letterman, of course, didn't mention Leno when the announcement of the new contract was made. In typical Letterman fashion, the statement simply said he is "thrilled to be continuing on at CBS" because, "At my age, you really don't want to have to learn a new commute."

But it's hard not to think he had Leno's departure in mind. Sure, it's been 15 years, but Letterman hasn't forgotten how Leno and his manager shoved Johnny Carson aside and maneuvered Leno into the seat that Letterman and Carson both assumed would go to Letterman.

Once Letterman and O'Brien go head to head, the late-night "wars" should quiet down considerably. The two men have expressed their mutual admiration on numerous occasions, and Letterman's reaction to the news that O'Brien would get the show in 2009 was that it might mean he'd appear on "Tonight" for the first time since Carson retired.

TERMS OF LETTERMAN'S deal were not announced, but it's expected that he's getting a raise from the measly $31.5 million a year he currently makes.

Leno, by the way, makes about $25 million a year.

WILL LENO RETIRE? It's still an open question, apparently. Reports continue to circulate that, having been forced to agree to step down in 2009 by NBC (which feared losing Conan O'Brien), workaholic Leno has been rethinking that decision.

Oh, he won't be hosting "Tonight." But rumor is he's been talking to ABC and Fox.

BY THE TIME his contract with CBS expires in 2010, Letterman will be within striking distance of surpassing Johnny Carson's longevity as a late-night host.

Carson hosted "The Tonight Show" for 29 years. Letterman will have hosted the "Late Show" for 17 years. Add to that the 11 years he hosted "Late Night" on NBC, and he'll only be about a year behind his idol/mentor.

Maybe Letterman will want to stick around past 2010 in order to set the record. Or maybe he'd rather leave Carson as the all-time king of late-night television.

Even if Letterman doesn't break Carson's record, Conan O'Brien might. By the time he takes over "Tonight" in 2009, he will have spent 16 years hosting "Late Night." If he hosts "Tonight" for 14 years, for a total of 30 years in late night, he'll be 60 — six years younger than Carson was when he retired.

BY THE WAY, when Leno retires in 2009 (assuming he does), he will have hosted "Tonight" for 17 years.

Jack Paar hosted it for five years; Steve Allen for four.

Other late night hosts have included: Tom Snyder (13 years), Arsenio Hall (five years), Dick Cavett (five years), Craig Kilborn (five years), Carson Daly (five years and counting), Jimmy Kimmel (four years and counting), Merv Griffin (three years on CBS; 18 years in syndication), Craig Ferguson (two years and counting), Pat Sajak (one year) and Joan Rivers (one year).


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