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.
"Carter’s book is a fast-paced, informative and entertaining look at the often nonsensical business of television..."
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 p