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The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early…

The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy (original 2010; edition 2011)

by Bill Carter

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164872,634 (4.04)2
Title:The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy
Authors:Bill Carter
Info:Plume (2011), Paperback, 432 pages
Collections:Your library, Favorites, Actually Read
Tags:Television, Journalism

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The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy by Bill Carter (2010)



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I remember when this happened. I sincerely felt Conan was wronged and I still believe it to this day. However, after hearing all sides of what went down, courtesy of respected TV journalist and author Bill Carter, I can see now why those involved acted the way they did.

On one side, you have Conan O'Brien. Back in the early 2000s, Conan passed on an offer to move to Fox, and with it a HUGE pay increase—something like 7x his current salary—because NBC reassured him The Tonight Show was his once Jay Leno stepped down. Essentially, the show was contractually promised to Conan. Then there's Jay, the workaholic ratings king, whom NBC asked to step aside in 2009 to make way for Conan. His response was, "... okay." Except, what he was actually thinking was, "Why is this okay? I'm number one on late night. Why is NBC asking me to leave when I still have so many good years ahead of me?" And then there's NBC, headed by Jeff Zucker, trying to avoid the mess from the last Tonight Show hand-off back in 1993. NBC loves Jay, but didn't want to lose Conan. So they brokered a deal in order to keep both stars. Egos clashed and drama ensued. Admittedly, it wasn't as bad as '93, but it still wasn't pretty.

I want to note one especially good moment: It's from the chapter titled "We're the Network" and it's Lorne Michaels, the creator and decades-long producer of Saturday Night Live, recounting a conversation with his NBC boss from the late 1970s which impressed upon him how valuable he was (and would be) to SNL's continuing success should he decide to leave to show and how NBC as an entity, aka "The Network," was indifferent to whatever he decided. The lesson: Sometimes you're given something special, something only you can grow into something better. Take it or leave it. Few if any other people would be able to do the same. ( )
  Daniel.Estes | Oct 13, 2016 |
When I first heard about this book, I was still seething from when Jay Leno took the Tonight Show away from O'Brien after only seven months of some hit or miss shows. Funny thing, for whatever reason, my hatred of Leno blinded me to the sheer stupidity of NBC. When I was finished this book, I still disliked Leno but I realized I hated NBC more.

There were some good points brought up here in defense of Leno, but there were also some points that made him look like a jerk. That being said, the book wasn't entirely pro Conan either. In NBC’s defense they did make some suggestions to O'Brien that he more or less ignored. NBC had been looking for Conan to alter his comedy style to suit people who were not fans. Basically, NBC wanted him to retain a large portion of Leno’s fans and looking at it from a business standpoint, you really can’t blame them. As much of a dream as Conan wanted to label his time on The Tonight Show, as the author points out, it’s still a job. When you’re an employee, you have to listen to your boss. Unfortunately for NBC, Conan was not, and never would be, Jay Leno 2.0.

For the life of me, I can’t wrap my head around NBC’s stance that they couldn't let Leno go to another network. Yes, when he left his post on The Tonight Show, he was still number one in late night but the man was at the point in his life where he couldn't possibly be a threat for long. He wasn't going to do this forever, surely he only had a few more years left in the tank. I also just can’t understand who finds this man funny, especially when there are so many other options in late night land. Other than “Headlines”, which is just Jay reading (or screaming) typos that other people send in, there’s really no reason to watch his show. He’s not innovative or unique and he’s painfully annoying. I just don’t get it.

Not only does the author shed some light on The Tonight Show fiasco in 2010 but you get some background on the other late night hosts. There are some interesting bits about Letterman, Stewart, Colbert and Kimmel. It kind of left me wanting a book about Letterman as the stuff written about Dave had been fascinating.

In my opinion, it all worked out for the best. Leno gets his show back on a network that doesn't deserve better and Conan gets his own show on cable where he doesn't have to answer to the affiliates. Conan is also $45 million richer! Oh, it should be worth mentioning that you have to catch the epilogue. It features some quotes from Jerry Seinfeld that basically make this whole thing look ridiculous. Some funny stuff indeed.

Cross Posted @ Every Read Thing ( )
  branimal | Apr 1, 2014 |
I couldn't get enough of the Tonight Show saga when it was going on and this is an excellent narrative of the whole affair. Researched almost entirely through interviews by the author, it reads almost like a novel in places. You learn a great deal about the process and the thought behind the initial deal which kept Conan at NBC in 2004 and the later disastrous decision to move Jay Leno into primetime, but also about the main players both in front of the camera and behind the scenes: what the meetings were like, and what their lives are like. (A particular eye opener for me was how important and influential executives like Dick Ebersol at NBC and the lizard-like Roger Ailes at Fox are--despite having responsibilities completely unrelated to late night.)

The prose is first-rate, always interesting, but never getting in its own way. This is what the lame "oral histories" of Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons could have been. I suppose they still could be. ( )
  numbernine | Apr 4, 2013 |
Disclaimer: I love Bill Carter and I find all of his books to be absolutely fascinating as I am obsessed with the television industry.

If you're looking for some surprise ending, you don't need this book. We all know the basics of the late night debacle and how it all turns out. What this book provides is background on not just Leno & Conan, but every player in the late night business... from the late night hosts [Letterman, Ferguson, Kimmel, Stewart, Colbert] to their producers to the network executives. Bill Carter knows how to research his stories and tell a solid narrative.

I didn't know it was possible, but heart grew even more for Conan after reading this book. My heart also became slightly more sympathetic toward everyone in this debacle. It was a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situation for NBC and there was never any way for this to turn out in their favor.

Basically this book is for people who can never get enough detail about the TV world [yes, I also loved Bill Carter's other books]. ( )
  Rincey | Mar 30, 2013 |
This is not a beautifully written book, but the research is good, and the scenarios interesting and gossipy in an enjoyable way. ( )
  flexatone | Dec 15, 2011 |
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For all the Carters and everyone else who shared the love at Fourth Street and Breezy--and especially in memory of Mom (Grams), who served it up to all of us in such abundance
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By eight thirty on the evening of May 19, 2009, a stream of cabs and limos was snaking slowly down West Forty-third Street, pulling up one by one to the doors of the venerable, somewhat shabby Town Hall.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 067002208X, Hardcover)

A dramatic account of the politics and personalities behind NBC's calamitous attempt to reinvent late-night television.

When NBC decided to move Jay Leno into prime time to make room for Conan O'Brien to host the Tonight show-a job he had been promised five years earlier-skeptics anticipated a train wreck for the ages. It took, in fact, only a few months for the dire predictions to come true. Leno's show, panned by critics, dragged down the ratings-and the profits-of NBC's affiliates, while ratings for Conan's new Tonight show plummeted to the lowest levels in history. Conan's collapse, meanwhile, opened an unexpected door of opportunity for rival David Letterman. What followed was a boisterous, angry, frequently hilarious public battle that had millions of astonished viewers glued to their sets. In The War for Late Night, New York Times reporter Bill Carter offers a detailed behind-the-scenes account of the events of the unforgettable 2009/2010 late-night season as all of its players- performers, producers, agents, and network executives-maneuvered to find footing amid the shifting tectonic plates of television culture.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:01 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

NY Times reporter Bill Carter offers a detailed behind-the-scenes account of the events of the unforgettable 2009/2010 late-night season as all of its players--performers, producers, agents, and network executives--maneuvered to find footing amid the shifting tectonic plates of television culture.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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