CBS Blackout Frustrates Artists Aiming for 'Letterman' Exposure

John Mayer, MGMT, John Legend affected by network's downtime in major cities

John Mayer
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images
John Mayer performs in Camden, New Jersey.
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For months, John Mayer's marketing people worked on scheduling a slot on CBS' Late Show With David Letterman timed to the release of his new album, Paradise Valley. And Mayer's August 19th version of the countryish "Wildfire" was one of those rare performances that seemed to move Dave himself: "Oh my God, nice going!" the host said afterwards. But CBS and Time Warner Cable are feuding, so TV audiences in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas missed the show. "I had to go to the taping," says Michael McDonald, Mayer's manager. "It was the only way I could see the show in New York!

See Behind the Scenes Photos of John Mayer Prepping for Letterman

"It's really, really unfortunate," he adds. "It sucks when things beyond your control really cut into your exposure. And you can't scramble and try to reschedule other opportunities on different networks, because they're all booked well in advance, just like CBS is."

The dispute between CBS and Time Warner over retransmission fees blacks out about 3.2 million viewers from watching CBS or Showtime programming — roughly 3 percent of homes with TVs. The network's national ratings haven't suffered much, but the dispute has devastated local news shows in New York, L.A. and elsewhere and disproportionately hurt musicians who've played Letterman and other CBS shows in the past few weeks, including Mayer, MGMT, John Legend and, coming up this week, singer-songwriter Laura Marling and slide-guitar hero Robert Randolph.

"New York and Los Angeles are obviously the media hubs — those are where you'd like to jump-start other media," says Peter Katsis, manager of the Backstreet Boys, who performed last week on CBS' The Talk. "You don't want to see the TV audience restricted in any way."

"It doesn't take much of a brain to know you'd rather have your music exposed to 10 million people than to 7 million," adds Bob Merlis, whose company handles public relations for Robert Randolph and the Family Band, scheduled to perform Tuesday on Letterman. "More is always better."

Like many in the TV industry, Katsis predicts the companies will resolve their dispute before the NFL returns September 8th. And for Letterman, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson and other music-prominent CBS shows, the damage could have been worse — Ferguson had few musical guests and Letterman was mostly in reruns during August. But the dispute is still robbing performers of critical publicity. "In Backstreet's case, shows like The Talk reach their targeted audience. We come to depend on these shows for getting the word out," Katsis says. "We've actually used TV appearances to get the record going, whereas most people use the record to get the TV going."

Mayer's people have tried to make up for the viewer shortfall by pushing the Late Show clip online. "We did a 'Live On Letterman' online concert — hopefully we got some of that exposure back in those markets," McDonald says. "I guess I'm thankful that most of our other artists are playing Letterman after the NFL season starts."