The other day James Corden announced he would be leaving his CBS late night show in a year’s time. Online the news was met with a lot of jokes and rehashing of Corden’s supposed personality flaws but it wasn’t met with a lot of interest or speculation. And while there would be a bit more hoopla if one of the trio of 11:30 hosts left their chair, it still wouldn’t hold a candle to what happened thirty years ago when Johnny Carson retired.
Carson had been the dominant force in late-night for three decades, to such an extent that ABC and CBS for the most part just ceded the territory to NBC. However, as Bill Carter recounts in his well-reported book, Carson’s audience was beginning to age along with him, and NBC was worried. They thought they had the perfect solution at hand in Jay Leno, Carson’s permanent guest host. Leno’s appearances always attracted younger viewers, and the NBC execs thought that with him and Late Night host David Letterman airing back-to-back they would have a dynamite programming block for years to come. So even before Carson announced his retirement the network signed Leno to a contract which guaranteed he would take over The Tonight Show.
The big problem? Nobody told that to David Letterman. Having hosted Late Night for years at 12:30, Letterman quite reasonably thought of himself as the natural heir to his idol, Carson. Though Carson himself stayed out of the successor talk, it was also widely assumed that Letterman was his favorite for the gig. So when Dave found out that he wasn’t getting the job and, indeed, had never actually had a shot at it, he was initially crushed. Then when Leno struggled mightily out of the gate, largely due to the mismanagement of his producer Helen Kushnick, many people within NBC started to wonder if they’d made a mistake in choosing Jay Leno, and whether or not it was too late to rectify it.
Thus launched a protracted power-struggle within NBC and between Letterman’s and Leno’s camps. Carter does an excellent job taking the reader inside the offices of the show’s staffs, the hosts’ management teams, and the corporate suite. In sometimes exhausting detail, he provides the inside dope on who backed who and why. With millions of dollars on the line, it might seem like cold calculations would rule the day, but Carter shows how personality clashes and real and perceived slights changed the fortunes of both men and of network television. Nearly everyone at NBC would privately admit that Letterman was the funnier host, but they bristled at his frequent jokes at the expense of the network and it’s corporate owners at GE. Letterman disliked the sleaziness of show business and often seemed cold in person, whereas Leno was always eager to please and would do anything asked of him. There was also an assumption that Leno had more appeal to the whole country and to working-class viewers. Letterman was attracting a younger audience in the middle of the night, but it was thought he would alienate people at 11:30.
Carter’s reporting is incredibly detailed. Everyone talked to him. There are things in the book you can’t believe someone told a reporter about. Most infamous is a scene where Leno, worried that he was about to be fired and replaced by Letterman, snuck into an empty adjacent office and listened in on a meeting where all the power players were discussing his fate. It’s a crazy, reckless thing to have done and the most remarkable part is that Leno practically bragged about it, revealing his deception to Warren Littlefield, president of the Entertainment division.
As most everyone knows, Letterman eventually gave up on his dream of taking over The Tonight Show and left for CBS. Carter’s book ends with Letterman ascendant. He’s number one in the ratings, a critical darling, and so obviously the king of late night that the Oscars asks him to host. It’s an ending full of dramatic irony, but the journey is the key here. Carter went inside a television network and laid their decision-making process bare in a way that had never been done before. Though it now feels a bit like archaeology due to the decreased status of late-night TV, it’s still a fascinating look at the way big business gets done.