David Letterman turns 65 next week, but he’s not planning an early retirment: The longtime Late Show host has signed a new deal with CBS that will keep him talking through 2014. The agreement will extend Letterman’s late-night run to 32 years, allowing him to break Johnny Carson’s record as the longest-serving late-night host (Carson hosted a single show for 30 years). What’s more, CBS and Letterman’s Worldwide Pants have also reached an agreement to keep Craig Ferguson onboard as host of Late Late Show through 2014. There’s a twist, however: Pants will give up full control of Ferguson’s broadcast, becoming a co-producer with CBS. Ferguson will get a bigger stage as part of the agreement, perhaps hinting at an effort to broaden the show out from its current intimate feel and test out Ferguson’s appeal as a potential successor to Letterman. All this late-night news comes at a time of relative stability — and declining ratings — in the broadcast network after-hours race.
For one thing, all the major players seem to be sticking around. Earlier this year, TBS renewed Conan O’Brien’s late-night show through April 2014, while Jimmy Kimmel is widely understood to be safe at ABC and nobody expects Jay Leno to leave until sometime after his funeral. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have deals that will keep them put through June 2013. As for ratings, Since the season began in September, Letterman’s Late Show and Leno’s The Tonight Show have battled to something of a draw: Leno (with an average audience of 3.8 million viewers) is just ahead of Letterman (3.2 million), but among those under 50, the two shows are tied at a 0.9 rating. (Since the start of the calendar year, Leno has stayed steady at a 0.9, but Dave has slipped to a 0.9). But compared to just a few years ago, the two major players are down. During the 2008-9 season, Tonight was averaging a 1.4 rating with viewers under 50, while Late Night notched around a 1.1. The real question now is: If and when Dave and Jay move on, will the audience levels be big enough to merit anyone replacing them?