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 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) on January 5, 2011