Signaling the end of one of the great careers in TV history but also the beginning of a new era in late-night television, David Letterman announced Thursday that he will retire in 2015.
In what began as a routine "host chat" segment after the monologue, Letterman -- who turns 67 on April 12 -- startled the Ed Sullivan Theater audience with the news.
He said that just before the show's 4 p.m. taping, he had called CBS CEO Leslie Moonves: "I said, 'Leslie, it's been great, you've been great, and the network has been great, but I'm retiring."
Letterman later noted, "We don't have the timetable for this precisely down -- I think it will be at least a year or so, but some time in the not-too-distant future." His contract ends next year.
His surprise announcement offered a distant echo of when Johnny Carson stunned an audience of NBC executives and advertisers at Carnegie Hall in 1991 by saying he would step away from "The Tonight Show" in 1992.
Just as Carson's departure was a generational shift in late-night TV, so will be Letterman's. The "Late Show" host is the oldest member of a small club that has grown dramatically in recent years. At least a dozen late-night talk shows on cable and broadcast TV all jostle for the same largely male viewership.
Meanwhile, "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" has solidified a huge lead in the late-night ratings race just two months after Fallon succeeded Jay Leno. About 4 million viewers tune in to "Tonight," on average, compared with just over 2 million for "Late Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
The average age of "Tonight's" viewers stands at 54, or five years younger than "Late Show's," which now has the oldest audience in late-night TV. It's also a year younger than Kimmel's average.
Letterman has long hinted that he would retire, and even though he began dropping hints -- usually playfully -- several years ago, he also seemed reluctant to get pinned down on a date.
By all accounts, Letterman has had a good -- even close -- relationship with Moonves, who said in a statement Thursday, "On a personal note, it's been a privilege to get to know Dave and to enjoy a terrific relationship. It's going to be tough to say goodbye. Fortunately, we won't have to do that for another year or so."
There was no indication that Letterman was pressured to make a decision -- either to extend his contract or step down next year. "As always, my first thought was 'Oh no, it's too soon for him to do that,' " said Dan Rather, former "CBS Evening News" anchor and frequent "Late Show" guest. "Then the thought right behind that was, no, David will know when it's the right time." Rather added that "he's one of the lions of television -- for his generation and several generations."
Letterman launched NBC's "Late Night" franchise in 1982, later becoming embroiled in a running battle with his former friend, Jay Leno, over the "Tonight Show" succession. He endured his own personal scandal, an extortion attempt by the former lover of a female staffer with whom he had carried on an affair. In 2001, he helped with part of the national healing process in the months after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
In Thursday's announcement, he was gracious and joked:
"I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much. What this means now, is that [bandleader] Paul [Shaffer] and I can be married."