The second war for late night

latenight-scaled500In 1992, New York Times reporter Bill Carter wrote his terrific book ‘The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night’, detailing the amazing behind the scenes Hollywood power struggle between NBC, CBS, Jay Leno and David Letterman for the right to succeed Johnny Carson as host of the Tonight Show. If anybody revealed that Hollywood is just like Alice in Wonderland, Bill Carter did. My personal highlight in that book was the improbably scene of Jay Leno hiding in a broom closet to listen in on a secret NBC conference call, and later using his knowledge of the call to tease various NBC executives. In the end, Jay Leno won that war, taking over the Tonight Show while David Letterman retreated to CBS to start his own show.

To be honest, I’ve always been a Letterman fan. I even appeared on his show in 1994 in a Valentine’s Day sketch, where I got to throw a wedding cake out the window of the CBS studio that landed on the counter at Rupert’s below. Despite my own, small (and messy) contribution, Jay Leno won the ratings war, and has outscored Letterman on most nights every season.


But even Bill Carter could hardly have imagined that history would repeat itself. In 2004, NBC announced that Jay Leno would be replaced by Conan O’Brien five years later, in 2009. Because Leno’s ratings remained strong, NBC decided to do everything in it’s power to keep him with the network, and eventually gave him a daily prime-time show at 10:00pm. Unfortunately, both Conan and Leno failed to deliver the audiences NBC had hoped for. In a desperate move, NBC then tried to put Leno back at 11:30, giving him a half-hour show, pushing O’Brien back to 12:00. In his famous letter to the ‘people of the earth’, Conan O’Brien turned down NBC’s plot, paving the way for Leno to return to the Tonight Show. O’Brien later signed a deal with cable station TBS.


In other words, time for a sequel, and Bill Carter delivered with ‘The war for late night: when Leno went early and television went crazy’. A delicious read, that makes you think at each turn of the page: ‘what were these guys at NBC thinking?!?’. Two passages stand out though, and they’re both in the epilogue. One is from Jerry Seinfeld, seemingly the only person in Hollywood to maintain his sanity:

“It’s all fake! There’s no institution to offend! All of this ‘I won’t sit by and watch the institution damaged.’ What institution? Ripping off the public? That’s the only institution! We tell jokes and they give us millions! Who’s going to take over Late Night or Late Show or whatever the hell it’s called? Nobody’s going to take it over! It’s Dave! When Dave’s done, that’s the end of that! And then another guy comes along and has to do his thing. That, to me, is an obvious essential of show business that you eventually grasp…. There are no shows! It’s all made up! The TV show is just a card! Somebody printed the words on it!”

And the second passage, is the even better story told to ‘Saturday Night Live’ boss Lorne Michaels by his NBC boss Irwin Segelstein in 1979, when Michaels said he wanted to quit. You want to leave, Segelstein asked? Fine, this is what will happen:

“When you leave, the show will get worse. But not all of a sudden — gradually. And it will take the audience a while to figure that out. Maybe two, maybe three years. And when it gets to be, you know, awful, and the audience has abandoned it, then we will cancel it. And the show will be gone, but we will still be here, because we’re the network and we are eternal. If you read your contract closely, it says that the show is to be ninety minutes in length. It is to cost X. That’s the budget. Nowhere in that do we ever say that it has to be good. And if you are so robotic and driven that you feel the pressure to push yourself in that way to make it good, don’t come to us and say you’ve been treated unfairly, because you’re trying hard to make it good and we’re getting in your way. Because at no point did we ask for it to be good…. Our job is to lie, cheat, and steal — and your job is to do the show.”

Passages like these, and the fascinating insights into the Hollywood power struggles, make Bill Carter’s second installment into the battle for late night a must read.

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