When I read Bill Carter’s The Late Shift, about the battle over succeeding Johnny Carson as the host of The Tonight Show, I was reading about events that took place when I was seven years old and not, obviously, a viewer of late night television. Though I had heard the broad strokes of the story of Leno and Letterman, there was a lot of info I was unfamiliar with. The War for Late Night, on the other hand, covers events that took place in my teens and early 20s and much more personally invested in NBC’s series of baffling decisions.
A refresher, for the non-obsessed: in 2004, NBC was so nervous about Conan O’Brien leaving for FOX that they promised him the Tonight Show in five years, meaning Jay Leno would have to vacate that role, even though he was consistently number one in the ratings. It didn’t make much sense to anyone, especially Leno. Five years later, Leno was still number one and NBC started to wonder if they’d made a mistake but they would have had to pay a huge penalty to Conan to break the deal. So Conan moved to LA and took over, but instead of putting Leno out to pasture the network decided to put him into prime-time five nights a week at 10pm. The advantage was that they could save a lot of money by not airing pricy cop shows or hospital dramas, so the ratings wouldn’t have to be very good in order for the move to pay huge dividends. Unfortunately, “not very high” turned out to be too high a bar to clear for The Jay Leno Show, which tanked so hard it started a near-revolt by NBC’s affiliate networks, whose nightly local news shows were hemorrhaging viewers. It also damaged Conan’s ratings, though it was also clear that he was losing some viewers all on his own by not sufficiently adapting his show to the broader audience at the earlier hour. In the end, after endless debate and negotiation, NBC paid Conan his buyout and took him off the air seven months into his tenure at the Tonight Show and gave the job back to Jay Leno.
This was all very familiar to me, as a dedicated Conan fan who got really wrapped up in this drama. I remember well some of the big highlights of the sniping between late night hosts, like Jimmy Kimmel tearing Leno a new one on Leno’s own show, or Letterman gleefully ripping apart Leno’s “Don’t Blame Conan” speech. And I still remember the bittersweet nature of Conan’s last shows on NBC, when he knew the end was near and really let loose, including the memorable “waste NBC’s money” bits.
The new info here, even for an obsessive like me, is the detailed play-by-play of the decision-making process at NBC and the strategizing within both the Leno and O’Brien camps. Alliances are formed, friendships are tested, and feelings are hurt. With millions of dollars on the line, it’s truly remarkable how often these decisions come down to feelings. Carter is also good at giving you a real sense of what these people are like, though he remains scrupulously fair. Carter is resolutely unbiased in his reporting, but it’s impossible not to get a sense of Jay Leno’s inherent weirdness or Conan’s somewhat naive belief in plain dealing. Other television industry legends pop into the narrative, like SNL’s Lorne Michaels, Jerry Seinfeld, and NBC’s jack-of-all-trades Dick Ebersol.
The book finds the industry at a crossroads, with both ratings and profits declining due to the proliferation of DVR, cable alternatives, and streaming. It’s a central irony of the book that all this warfare is taking place over a decimated and far-less appealing slice of territory. The next time The Tonight Show job opens up it’s hard to imagine there will be anything approaching the rancor that has been occasioned the last two times.