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The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy Hardcover – Nov 9 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (Nov. 9 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067002208X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670022083
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 3.5 x 23.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 635 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #247,906 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By AdamTroy on Jan. 12 2012
Format: Hardcover
Bill Carter answers all the questions that everyone was asking about the Jay Leno vs. Conan O'Brien conflict. I didn't realize how many problems it caused within the network.

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.
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By Mikespoon TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 20 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A voyeristic look into the late night wars.
The book is great for anyone interested in the politics behind television
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By KDakota630 TOP 500 REVIEWER on June 28 2011
Format: Hardcover
If you were following the saga surrounding Conan O'Brien's and Jay Leno's battle for The Tonight Show at all and wanted to know the intimate details of what was going on behind the scenes and why, then this book is definitely worth reading and will likely be difficult to put down.

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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 90 reviews
85 of 88 people found the following review helpful
An excellent overview of one of the biggest TV stories in years. Nov. 7 2010
By Michael A. Weyer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
When the Lay Leno/Conan O'Brian "Tonight Show" debacle began, everyone knew there was only one person who could tell the true story: Bill Carter. 15 years after his excellent "The Late Shift," Carter finally gives us the follow-up and it's just as wonderfully detailed and excellent as the first book was.

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.
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Excellent piece of journalism - the definitive account Nov. 9 2010
By Will Klinger - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is one of the most purely interesting books I've read in a very long time. As someone who is fascinated by the entertainment industry, and television in particular, this is about as good as it gets. Bill Carter is a fantastic writer, and he manages to make the events surrounding the Jay-Conan fiasco accessible and exciting without being overly dramatic. It is a solid piece of entertainment journalism, and is seems to be very fair and even-handed. There does seem to be a slight pro-Conan tone throughout, but this could be because many pages are spent on Conan's background and history. This part really drew me in as a reader and I more readily sympathized with Conan because of all the personal details provided. However, I never got the impression that Carter was telling only one side of the story. All three sides (Conan, Jay, and NBC) are all given fair treatment, and Carter's assessment of the actions of each is masterfully related to one another to provide a fuller picture of what transpired. At different points in the book, I got a strong sense of what it must have felt like for each party.

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.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Deja vu all over again March 25 2011
By Cee Moe - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
From the moment things went down at NBC in early 2010, I wanted to read this book... and it hadn't even been written yet! I just knew there was so much inside baseball going on between the suits at NBC and Conan and Leno that a book would bring to light and I could sink my teeth into.
The War for Late Night is a very good book. There is plenty of juicy inside baseball and if you come into your book reading experience looking for villains in this story, yeah, there are a few. But the reason why I titled my review "Deja vu all over again", is because some of the characters have changed but it's the same story from the early nineties : NBC totally screwed up. This time around I think their folly was trying to have their cake and eat it too. The whole thing started because they didn't want to lose Conan to another network. Then there was the issue of what to do with Jay because you don't want to lose him to another network, either. This book teaches that in life, as in business, tough decisions must be made. It would have been rough for NBC if they lost Conan to another network, but in the end they did anyway, just with more egg on their face. I came away from this book realizing that when you make a decision, you must wait for the fallout, because there will always be a fallout. To try to avoid that is like avoiding the inevitable. You can delay the inevitable, but it will always find its way to you. That's one of those rules of life and the smarty pants executives at NBC tried to best it. That's why this book is perfect for anyone who is sick and tired of those smarty pants media elites and want to read a detailed, compelling, utterly readable book about said media elites being served a humongous, humiliating slice of humble pie.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Carter's account will stand as the definitive one. Dec 22 2010
By Bookreporter - Published on
Format: Hardcover
For a few weeks in January 2010, the nation held its collective breath as the story played out nightly on our television screens. A terrorist attack? A new economic crisis? No, the drama of that moment was the battle over the fate of Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and the venerable institution known as "The Tonight Show." Fifteen years after THE LATE SHIFT, his chronicle of the bloody cage match between Leno and David Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson, New York Times reporter Bill Carter returns with this workmanlike insider's story of the debacle that marked NBC's feckless attempt to make the transition to the franchise's next generation.

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 (
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Masterfully written and unbiased account of one of the most epic network screw-ups in history Jan. 14 2011
By Jonathan White - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book chronicled what actually happened behind the scenes of the 2010 Tonight show conflict. While much of the unfolding drama played out in the media, most of the reports painted Conan as a hero and Leno as the schemer who would do anything to get his job back. Much of the scrutiny and Leno bashing continued even after the truth came out. What sets this book apart from all the other reports is Carter's remarkably unbiased writing. He never seems to paint any of the participants in a particularly bad light, though he makes it abundantly clear that no one involved was particularly heroic. Carter shows us that the situation was more complex than most people thought. He provides us with the backstories of Leno and O'Brien as well as as other late-night competitors Jon Stewart, Craig Ferguson, Steven Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel which give us a psychological snapshot of each of them as well as provides a clue into the perhaps reseeding influence of the Tonight Show d and network television dominance altogether.
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.