The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy
Last week I wrote about Bill Carter’s seminal book The Late Shift, which chronicled the 1992-1993 struggle between David Letterman and Jay Leno over who would host The Tonight Show. Almost two decades later, NBC’s late-night terrain was unravelled by a very similar late-night war which resulted in Conan O’Brien’s ouster as host of The Tonight Show and Jay Leno’s return, following the failure of his 10 PM show. Returning to chronicle that craziness is Bill Carter, and I was excited to read his new book, The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.
Before he can get to all of the insanity that went down during the two-week period after Jay’s 10 PM show was cancelled and Conan refused to allow The Tonight Show to be moved back to 12:05 so that Jay could return to an 11:30 time-slot, Mr. Carter steps back a full five years to begin the story with the events that he felt led, almost inevitably, to that showdown. After an introductory chapter set at an uncomfortable NBC “upfront” presentation in 2009, the book moves back in time to 2004, and depicts the behind-the-scenes decision-making that resulted in NBC’s surprise move to promise Conan O’Brien that he would be installed as the host of The Tonight Show five years later, even though Jay Leno had been scoring great ratings and beating his rival David Letterman regularly for the past decade-and-a-half. That announcement raised a lot of eyebrows back in 2004 (I remember it raising mine, even though I was thrilled to hear that Conan would be replacing Jay), and through the book we get a lot of insight into how and why that all went down the way it did.
The book then moves forward to 2008, when NBC is now faced with the imminent loss of one of its late-night stars, Jay, and is desperate to come up with a solution that will allow them to hold on to both Jay and Conan. Shades of 1993, when NBC was desperate to find a way to hold onto its two big late-night stars of the time, Jay and Dave! Mr. Carter takes us through Jeff Zucker’s idea for the 10 PM show for Jay, and the middle chapters of the book depicts how and why that show quickly failed. Then, at last, we get to those fateful weeks in 2009, when things came to a head and everything exploded in NBC’s face.
This is great, juicy material, and I was thoroughly engrossed in The War For Late Night. As with his previous book, The Late Shift, Mr. Carter has done an enormous amount of research and the book really benefits from all of the interviews that Mr. Carter conducted. Much of the story is told by the participants’ own words. That gives the book a strong you-were-there feel, and that peek behind the curtain of TV show-biz is tantalizing.
What weakens The War For Late Night somewhat for me, though, was how long it takes for the book to get to “the good stuff.” All of the decision-making and machinations in 2004 and 2008 are interesting, but what I really wanted to read about (and I suspect I’m not alone on this) was about how and why everything went down after the cancellation of Jay’s 10 PM show. Why didn’t NBC just allow the now-damaged Jay to leave at that point? What led them to thinking that returning Jay to 11:30 and bumping Conan until after midnight was a good idea? Why did they think Conan would go for that? Why did Jay allow the network to treat Conan in that matter? Why, ultimately, did the network decide to reverse their 2004 decision and choose Jay over Conan as the host of The Tonight Show, and just how exactly did Conan wind up at the cable channel TBS?
Those are the questions that I wanted answered, and while the book does indeed cover all of those topics in its last third, those sections felt a bit rushed to me. I wanted Mr. Carter to have spent a little more time on his depiction of those events — to have dug a little deeper and given us a little more insight into all that went down. It’s hard to point at what’s not in the book because I obviously don’t know what, if anything, hasn’t been included! I’m sure Mr. Carter didn’t leave anything out on purpose — I just felt that he was able to get a lot more information about everyone’s actions in 2004 than in 2009. (This might be because the 2009 events were still so fresh and the wounds still so recent for so many involved — but, of course, that’s WHY the book was written in the first place, right?) In particular, Mr. O’Brien’s decision to start a new show at TBS — which caught so many in show business off-guard, and which is still, today, a little head-scratching — is covered in just about ten pages. Here is a key moment where I would have loved to have gotten a little more of an insight in what was going on in Mr. O’Brien’s head when he made that decision, and what his hopes are for this new venture on cable.
While not quite the home run that The Late Shift was, I can still say that I really enjoyed The War For Late Night, and I certainly tore through the book at a rapid clip. For anyone who followed the unfolding of this bizarre drama last year, this book is worth a read.