Bill Carter, author of The Late Shift, is back with the story of how Jeff Zucker's attempt to avoid a Carson-like succession drama failed
The War for Late Night:When Leno Went Early and Television Went CrazyBy Bill CarterViking, 416pp, $26.95
Toward the end of The War for Late Night, Jay Leno is feeling kicked around, Conan O'Brien is depressed, and NBC Universal Chief Executive Officer Jeff Zucker is enraged enough to shout expletive-laden threats into the phone as his plan for late-night domination collapses. As author Bill Carter points out, though, it actually could have been much worse—especially for NBC Universal.
In The War for Late Night, Carter, a New York Times media reporter since 1989, has created a companion to his 1994 best-seller, The Late Shift, about the post-Johnny Carson succession imbroglio. Carter long ago cemented his reputation as the Bob Woodward of the 11:35 time slot, and he treats those who would inhabit it with a Presidential seriousness. He interviews anyone and everyone connected with his story, exchanging the fig leaf of anonymity for some genuinely juicy stuff. Not that he had it easy. Readers of The Late Shift will remember a scene in which Leno hid in a closet to eavesdrop on a conference call among NBC executives. That piece of reportage changed the comedian's reputation from regular guy to Machiavellian survivor; it also appears to have compromised Carter's access to the funny man's internal monologue this time around. (Tonight Show producer Debbie Vickers, however, still provides plenty of details on Leno's mindset.) O'Brien presented a different journalistic challenge. In exchange for the more than $32 million he accepted to leave The Tonight Show, he agreed not to publicly disparage NBC or Leno for nine months. Carter navigates around this restriction just fine: The pompadoured one's thoughts, closed-door conversations, and talks with his wife somehow fill the pages.
As the wunderkind executive producer of The Today Show in the early '90s, Zucker understood the importance of avoiding a repeat of the Carson succession drama. After O'Brien's superb performance as host of the 2002 Emmy Awards, Zucker staved off other courting networks by secretly offering O'Brien a tempting carrot-and-stick proposition. If he signed a five-year deal, in 2004, as host of Late Night—the 12:35 a.m. program he inherited from David Letterman in 1993—The Tonight Show would be his at deal's end. At the time, however, Leno was the late-night ratings king, having thrashed Letterman's program almost every night since 1995. In March of 2004, Zucker traveled to Tonight's Burbank studio for a meeting in a basement sitting room. Leno, known to buy his shoes by the crateful from Payless, found the room "relaxing and homey." Zucker, disgusted by the old pizza boxes and bowls of "graying guacamole," referred to it as "the dungeon." Nevertheless, this is where he delivered the news of his succession plan.
Leno wasn't pleased with having to cede the stage before hitting 60, Carter reports, but he took it well—at least initially. A few years later, when Leno was still a strong No. 1 in the ratings—and the unheralded Craig Ferguson was occasionally outdrawing O'Brien at 12:35 a.m.—he pushed back. Leno began delivering monologue jokes that jabbed NBC's succession plan and sending out signals that he'd welcome offers from executives at Fox (NWS), ABC (DIS), and Sony Pictures Television (SNE). In his effort not to repeat the Carson debacle, Zucker responded with a bold plan that would allow him to keep both hosts. He forfeited the network's lineup of 10 p.m. programming in favor of The Jay Leno Show, an hour-long ersatz Tonight Show, which was estimated to save the network more than $10 million in production costs per week.
The decision was a nearly instant disaster. Leno was ill at ease at 10 p.m., an hour that forced him to compete against established scripted shows. When the terrible numbers rolled in, the affiliates rebelled. At 11:35, O'Brien wasn't getting it done, either. While the comedy purist wanted big ratings, Carter writes, he wasn't all that interested in the minute-by-minute results that drove the business. When Tonight began finishing second to Letterman for the first time since 1995, Conan fingered NBC's dismal 10 p.m. programming, a swipe at both his predecessor and his boss. Always scheming, Zucker tried to improvise: NBC went to Leno with the offer of a half-hour program at 11:35 p.m. and approached O'Brien with the notion of a 12:05 a.m. Tonight Show, which he refused in a huff.
O'Brien's response hints at a larger truth about the difficulty implicit in stars managing their own shows. In the final chapter, Carter solicits some much-needed analysis from comedy veterans Jerry Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. Both agree that O'Brien was wrong to take offense when NBC approached him with the 12:05 plan. "That fact that the network behaved badly?" Michaels explains. "If you read the charter, that's what they do. Their thing is, they behave badly, and you can't go, 'Really? They did this?'" The SNL honcho, who served as executive producer of Late Night with Conan O'Brien and plucked the comedian from obscurity, may also be smarting from something else. O'Brien decided not to keep him on his team for Tonight. Instead of supporting his protégé from within the halls of 30 Rock, he was reduced to keeping up with him as just another viewer.
Strangely, the whole fiasco might have been worth it. If O'Brien had left NBC in 2004 and established a competing late-night franchise, the network would have lost about $235 million in revenue, Carter estimates—significantly more than the roughly $45 million it handed O'Brien and his staff as they walked off the Universal soundstage. Nevertheless, the show must go on. Zucker now finds himself out of a job, and O'Brien's new show premieres this week on a basic cable channel his representatives couldn't find on the dial before coming to a deal. Leno is back where he was at the end of The Late Shift—seated on his Tonight Show throne, the victor of another national melodrama over late-night succession.