The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy Hardcover – Nov 4 2010
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About the Author
Bill Carter joined The New York Times as a national media reporter in 1989. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Late Shift, two other books on the television industry, Monday Night Mayhem and Desperate Networks, and has written numerous articles for The New York Times Magazine and other publications. He has been a guest on Nightline, Today, CNN, Charlie Rose, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and many other shows. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he lives in New Jersey with his wife. They have two children.
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Top Customer Reviews
A lot of mentions of what Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon were up to and how they all fit into the whole scandal.
I would definitely recommend this one, probably my favorite of the year.
The book is great for anyone interested in the politics behind television
It touches a bit on the original battle for The Tonight Show between Jay Leno (again) and David Letterman without rehashing too much of it, but enough if you don't know that story (which is another great book by the same author called The Late Shift which was also made into a made-for-TV movie) and how NBC went out of their way to avoid a similar situation from reoccurring, but wound up in pretty much the exact same situation.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Carter's writing is amazing as he makes you feel like a fly on the wall for the various meetings. He doesn't make judgements but gives us a balanced tale of the various players with full bios on Conan, Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and more. This allows you to get behind the people who are fleshed out wonderfully.
With Conan, Carter shows that his big problem was being too nice a guy and niave to the network politics. It's astonishing to discover that his people never secured a deal to make sure "The Tonight Show" always followed the evening news, which gave NBC some ammuntion. Another telling remark is on how Conan didn't do as much audience interaction as Leno or Letterman and considered himself a writer, not a performer, which cost him down the line. While Conan is shown as a sympathetic figure, he's not given a free ride by the author.
Leno, meanwhile, doesn't come off as some evil schemer but a nice guy in a hard situation. Carter paints the picture that Leno's decisions are due to his thinking in a time warp, still under the impression that "Tonight Show" is the only late night program people care about. As far as Jay's concerned, HE was the one who had "The Tonight Show" taken from him and he sees nothing wrong with taking it back.
While the focus is on those two, David Letterman gets a lot of attention as well. As in "The Late Shift," Carter illustrates that Letterman was always his own worst critic, taking so much blame on himself despite the wide respect people had for him (such as his post-9/11 speech). That attitude helped him remain popular in the wake of the intern scandal and gave him new fire when he took on Leno. As Carter points out, Letterman was the true heir to the Carson legacy, something NBC always ignored.
The other late night players are focused on (Although Carter does give short shrift to Craig Kilborn, dismissing his five-year run in a page) with how Colbert and Stewart robbed Conan of some of his buzz with younger viewers and their political influence as well as how Kimmel and Ferguson rose well. Jeff Zucker is also given huge attention as a man who can't seem to understand how bad NBC is in the ratings and putting way too much faith in Leno and other quick fixes that don't pan out.
The book comes alive when Leno's prime-time show crashes and burns and the fight for "Tonight Show" ignites. The meetings are wild and dramatic with Conan at one point exploding at NBC execs "what does Jay have on you?" The epilouge notes the shift in power with Jerry Seinfeld making the nice observation that people don't think about "Tonight Show" or "Late Show" but Jay/David/Conan.
While much of it may sound familiar ("the Late Shift" was powerful because there was no Internet back then so much of it came as a surprise) the book is great in its details and that it doesn't take sides helps you connect better. Thankfully, Carter avoids traps such as speculating how Johnny Carson would feel over all this and for anyone who wants the full story of how such a ridiculous situation took place, this is the best source you can possibly read and a great character piece to boot.
The writing style and flow of the story is excellent. The author does assume the reader has some basic knowledge of how the television industry works, but still provides concise and helpful explanations when needed. The access given to the author is amazing. Bob Woodward-type access. It seems that literally everyone involved talked to Bill Carter, and quite candidly at that. Granted, all sides surely gave their version of events, but thoughts and feelings are always clearly attributed to the different players.
The section about Conan's early years leading up to landing the Late Show in 1993 was very enlightening. Most of the information was new to me, and I have been following Conan for years.
The final few chapters, after the dust had settled, were especially readable and emotional. Carter clearly understood both sides of the story: on the one hand, some people become attached to television shows and talent on an emotional level. To others, it's all business and being a host is nothing more than a job. He cleverly steers clear of making any strong judgments in this respect, instead letting the story (and it's players) speak for itself. The epilogue, however, did give me the impression that that take-away message of this book is that late night television, at the end of the day, is a business. That may be true, but for the viewers, it's much more than that.
**** SPOILER ALERT ****
In a nutshell, Conan O'Brien, host of NBC's Late Night following Leno's the Tonight Show, was the hottest commodity on late night television during the early ought's, especially among the crucial younger adult viewing segment most prized by advertisers - he was being courted by rival networks ABC and Fox and was being offered roughly 7x his $3 million salary if he left NBC and took his show to another network. Conan told NBC CEO Jeff Zucker he would only re-sign with NBC if he had a contract to take over the Tonight Show from Leno within a relatively finite period of time; Conan revered Johnny Carson and was infatuated with the Tonight Show. Zucker agreed and then informed Leno, the top-grossing late night television host, that following the end of his next 5-year contract, he would be replaced by Conan, essentially firing him notwithstanding the fact that Leno was dominating Letterman and everyone else at the 11:35 timeslot.
Leno was a workaholic who had no intention of retiring and would simply have gone to ABC and would likely have beaten Conan's ratings handily at a different network. Rather than allow that, Zucker approved a move where Leno would start his own show, an abbreviated version of the Tonight Show, in prime time, at the 10:00 timeslot and then Conan would host the Tonight Show at its standard 11:35 timeslot. Thus, Zucker felt he could keep both of his late night stars without losing either to a rival. In 2009, Leno clumsily started his 10pm show to dismal ratings. At the same time, Conan's Tonight Show quickly lost 50% of its viewers. NBC's local affiliates were threatening, in substantial numbers, to pre-empt both shows with syndicated shows, at major loss, both of money and of face, to NBC. So Zucker approved a move shortening Leno's show to 30 minutes, moving it to 11:35, and bumping back the Tonight Show to 12:05. Leno signed on, but Conan threw a fit at these changes and negotiated a big payout for himself, a smaller payout for his show's employees, and quit NBC altogether, eventually taking his show to cable channel TBS. Leno then returned to host the Tonight Show.
So Conan was portrayed as the hip, intellectual comic and naive young romantic obsessed with the idea of hosting the beloved, sacred Tonight Show, a man who was represented by yesmen-and-yeswomen who did a crap job of negotiating his contracts. Leno was portrayed as the hard-working, blue-collar, everyman comic who had his representation negotiate a much more thorough, superior pay AND play (i.e. on-air guarantee) contract. And ultimately, Leno's bullet-proof contract (combined with Conan's wildly idealistic and naive theatrics about preserving the "integrity" of the Tonight Show), led to Leno staying on at NBC and Conan quitting in a huff.
All of the above could have been discussed in sufficient detail in about 20-30 pages. But 30-page articles don't sell - books do. So Carter got to work interviewing anyone and everyone at NBC and half the people at the other major networks, so it seemed. One of the problems I had with this book was that in order to bulk it up to book length, Carter decided to discuss dozens of peripheral players - every mid and lower-level executive at NBC, many of whom seemed to have had minimal roles other than to provide a paragraph-long "aside" commenting on their astonishment that Zucker or Conan were making the decisions that they did. These many paragraphs screamed "filler" at me, loud and clear. Then there are pages of bios on Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stuart, and Stephen Colbert, most of which was not particularly relevant and seemed to be included as filler, as well. Now some of that material was actually more interesting than the main book, but these little side-trips did not advance the reported story to any significant extent.
It would have been nice, although not necessarily relevant, if Carter had addressed some of the criticism thrown at Leno, pre-2009 (i.e. that he "borrowed" most of his show's ideas from others such as Howard Stern and David Letterman). It would have been altogether relevant to have addressed the mutterings post-2009, that Leno insisted that his 10pm show overshadow Conan's by cherry-picking the best guests, leaving B-listers and the no-longer-current celebs for Conan's show, but Carter avoided discussing this issue. This seems to be a particularly relevant issue, as I personally decide what late night show to watch based first and foremost, on which guests will appear on which show. I don't especially like Ferguson or Leno and prefer Letterman, Kimmel or the Conan of old (the several times I've seen him on TBS, he seems to have lost his edge), but if my choice is between a record-setting athlete or a supermodel fresh off the SI Swimsuit Issue shoot on Ferguson's show, versus Letterman interviewing a weepy, overly dramatic actor who just won a Tony, well, that's a no-brainer - I'm going with the more interesting guest, host be damned. I imagine that a large portion of the late night viewing audience bases their decision similarly, rather than purely based on preferences for one host or the other.
And it would have been very relevant to discuss exactly why so many Hollywood celebrities took Conan's side and denounced Leno, but Carter did not discuss these other Hollywood types, except to report on the Jimmy Kimmel appearance on Leno's show in which he stated the best practical joke he knew of was to give a friend your show and then suddenly take it right back, yanking it out from under him. Ultimately, Carter took so much effort to report objectively that it left the book feeling like a semi-chronological list of events (I use the prefix "semi" as Carter does skip around a bit more than average) rather than an account of what really happened. Until the last few pages, no one was the villain of this book - it was just nice and polite and respectfully reported on a bunch of bright well-minded people doing different things that they each thought was in everyone's best interest - "Everyone, let's hold hands and not point fingers." This extreme effort to be "even-handed" left me feeling that the author was too tentative and too focused on being non-judgmental. I felt that Carter's main focus was to stay on good enough terms with everyone to be able to maintain future access to each of the main players.
At the end, Carter finally came down with some sort of edict on why the NBC late night show catastrophes happened and who was to blame. However, even then, he could not do so in his own words, but instead hid behind a lengthy quote from Jerry Seinfeld, one of few in the entertainment business who staunchly supported Leno through these events. Seinfeld stated that it was naive of Conan to have revered the Tonight Show as some sort of sacred artistic entity and instead should have recognized that a late night show is nothing more than a job and is all about the host and ratings, not carrying on the "tradition" of a show. And he further blasted Conan for throwing a tantrum about the Tonight Show being moved back half an hour to 12:05, saying 30 minutes is 30 minutes - deal with it and stay employed. Carter also very gently hinted at Jeff Zucker's rather extreme hubris and failure to consider the personalities and egos involved, but not so much as to preclude some future interview with Zucker.
The biggest irony of the whole story is that the person who had the deepest, near-worshipful reverence for the Tonight Show based on its history, tradition, and the legends that hosted it previously, was Conan O'Brien. And Conan's fanbase - the younger demographic - had no such loyalties to the Tonight Show at all, since many of them, if they had even been born, were not old enough to have stayed up to watch a single episode of the Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson. Conan's fanbase could not have cared less about "maintaining the venerable traditions and integrity" of the show - they wanted Conan's wacky, cutting edge humor, interesting celebrity guests, and the coolest, latest musical guests. Since many of Conan's fans were recording the show on their DVR's for later viewing, the show's timeslot was only relevant if it conflicted with something else they wanted to record. To most people, the name of a late night show is irrelevant - when is the last time anyone has heard someone, in round-the-watercooler talk, refer to "The Tonight Show" or "The Late Night Show?" It is always "On Letterman last night..." or "On Leno last night...." So ultimately, Conan's inflexible stand that led to his quitting the Tonight Show turned out to be a puzzling irony, that the most irreverent, modern host in late night would, first, refuse to mold and adapt his show in any way to the traditions of his predecessors on the show to retain existing viewers and secure the show's commercial success, and second, he would torpedo his own career for the sake of those very traditions that were inconsequential to his own fanbase.
In summary, this was a well-researched book that obviously was the work of a tremendous amount of interviewing by its author. However, I felt that Bill Carter took so many pains to tiptoe around pointing any fingers at any celebrity or industry executive that it read more of a list of "who," "what," and "when" rather than an analysis that answered the question "why." Ultimately, I made up my own mind, to some extent, that Conan was much more to blame than the public thought at the end of his time on the Tonight Show (and foolishly passed up a good quarter of a billion dollars of income over his lifetime). Exactly how did he think he was going to take over the show if Leno was not yet ready to retire? However, I felt that Carter withheld information on Jay Leno's involvement in the behind-the-scenes machinations - I've heard too many Hollywood insiders refer to Leno as a devious and calculating individual or something similar with regard to his actions in regaining the Tonight Show for me to believe that he just sat back and politely accepted whatever NBC told him without taking some role in the whole fiasco. I closed the last page of the book feeling that Carter sugar-coated Leno's portion of the events. I don't know that there is a strong argument to be made condemning an older person for feeling bitter and scheming to return things to the old status quo when he is forced out of his job by a younger replacement. But regardless of where sympathies lie, I felt that there was more to this story than Bill Carter reported and that caused me to deduct a full star from my rating of this book.
In March 2004, Jeff Zucker, the CEO of NBC Universal, hatched what seemed at the time to be a perfectly sensible plan to "Keep the consistently winning Jay as long as possible while also preventing Conan from taking his increasingly impressive talent elsewhere" (FOX being the most likely destination). In five years, Leno would step aside, to be replaced by O'Brien, the host since 1993 of the initially shaky but now solidly popular (especially among the coveted 18-49 demographic) "Late Night." O'Brien had dreamed of assuming Carson's mantle since he'd watched "The Tonight Show" with his father in the living room of their Brookline, Massachusetts home. "That shared memory had a powerful pull on Conan," Carter writes.
But despite half a decade to secure a small number of puzzle pieces in place, the best Zucker and Jeff Gaspin, the head of NBC Entertainment, could do by the time Leno's 17-year run ended on May 29, 2009, after 3,775 shows, was to hand him the 10:00 time slot each weekday night after every other option, including cable, specials and an 8:00 spot, was explored and rejected. Almost from the moment the plan was announced, NBC's affiliates (whose power Carter makes clear) expressed their displeasure, even going so far as to dictate the format of the show (the funniest comedy bit after Jay's monologue had to be placed at the end of the show, to provide a strong lead-in to the late local news).
In Conan's early months on "The Tonight Show" he fared little better than Leno at 10, holding on to the youthful demographic of his former show, but quickly slipping in the overall ratings battle with Letterman's "Late Show." "Half of the audience was gone in nine weeks. That's a joke," commented longtime NBC executive Dick Ebersol, no fan of O'Brien's comedy and a key behind-the-scenes player in these events.
What precipitated O'Brien's demise after only seven months as host of "The Tonight Show" and Leno's return was Gaspin's desperate gambit to reinstate Leno for half an hour at 11:35 p.m. and move the start time of "Tonight" to 12:05 a.m. While Carter seems at one level to admire O'Brien's principled stand in defense of the "institution" and his decision, ultimately, to resign rather than allow it to be compromised, he approvingly quotes veterans like Jerry Seinfeld and Lorne Michaels, who openly question the wisdom of O'Brien's choice. O'Brien's fundamental problem was that his contract did not contain "time period protection," which meant that "The Tonight Show" beginning half an hour later was still "Tonight" despite his protestations to the contrary. That fact, coupled with Leno's extraordinary "pay and play" contract, which compelled the network to find him a time slot, made the decision to buy out O'Brien's contract at a cost of roughly $45 million inevitable.
Though Carter's story features the expected amounts of duplicity, naked self-interest and self-delusion, there seem to be no real villains in his telling. A quick peek at his acknowledgements perhaps explains his predominantly gentle tone. Unlike many memoirs of this sort, Carter benefitted from extensive interviews with the principal players, and that's both the weakness and strength of this book. While he's not forced to indulge in annoying narrative devices like "Conan must have thought" or "Jay could only wonder," his closeness to the principals may have come at the price of a less incisive story.
When the dust settled, two wealthy, talented comedians were left to ply their trade --- one in a familiar home, the other in a new one --- in the hours when most working Americans are settling down for a good night's sleep. Carter's book is a fast-paced, informative and entertaining look at the often nonsensical business of television, but apart from the big money and big egos that drove the conflict, it's reasonable to ask whether the outcome of the "war" he recounts was of concern to anyone beyond the coterie of people at its core. At least until those principals someday write their memoirs, Carter's account will stand as the definitive one.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (email@example.com)
Leno's understanding of the ratings and belief that he who remains at the top stays there until he slips left him feeling somewhat perplexed as to why he was being asked to surrender his show five years in advance. Carter paints him not as devious schemer but as a guy who felt he had something taken from him. Conan, with his sense of entitlement regarding Tonight, believed that, as the more talented, he therefore deserves the job and Leno should go quietly. He failed to understand however that in the television industry numbers are what matter.
Zucker, with his desire to keep his still viable late-night line-up in tow is painted not as heartless but as a typically minded corporate executive with a tough decision.
Ultimately though Carter concludes that though networks and the people who run them often make bad decisions, they are and always will be a constant force. Talent, meanwhile will come come and go and numbers will always win out.
Overall, the book's only weakness is its overly detailed nature of the events and the assumption that the reader has a knowledge of network politics.
So whether you blame Leno, O'Brien, NBC itself or even the media's coverage of the fiasco, you will enjoy this book.