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Book Review: The War for Late Night January 16, 2011

Posted by dczarum in Uncategorized.
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Note: This article is originally published in The Argosy newspaper and as such can not be reprinted without permission from the Editor in Chief (argosy@mta.ca)

The War for Late Night: When Leno went early and television went crazy. Written by Bill Carter. Viking Press, 2010.

Dave Zarum

“Frankly, either NBC is closing its eyes to a situation it does not wish to acknowledge, or they are unaware of the caliber of disaster indicated by a drop to fourth place (behind CBS, ABC, and FOX)… Well, (cue the ragtime music) we’ve got Trouble right here at NBC with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘G’ as in, ‘Gee, we’re screwed!’/Just a few years ago we were sitting on top with Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends. Then those shows bailed and new ones failed and it started a nasty trend/And the guy who passed on Lost was promoted instead of tossed, and now the Peacock is taking it from both ends.”

It was August of 2006 when Conan O’Brien kicked off his performance as host of the 58th annual Emmy Awards with this ominous song-and-dance number. Who would have thought that it would only get worse for NBC, whose already shoddy reputation would be further sullied thanks to a public battle over the future of late night programming between the network and its two biggest stars, O’Brien and Jay Leno? Yet that is precisely what happened, as meticulously chronicled by New York Times national media reporter, Bill Carter, in his latest book, The War for Late Night.

At the time of his Emmy appearance, Conan was preparing to take over the Tonight Show from its longtime and successful (at least as far as ratings and revenue was concerned) host, Jay Leno- a plan that had been in the works since early 2004. But by the time 2009 rolled around (when Conan was contractually promised the Tonight Show gig), Leno was still easily number one in the ratings and, despite nearing sixty years of age, showed no signs of slowing down. So NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker (the man who passed on Lost) and his executive cohorts were left with the unenviable task of supplanting the most-watched late night personality (Leno) with one who was undoubtedly funny, but ultimately an unknown commodity at the 11:35 Tonight Show time slot (Conan).

Of course, we all know what happened: Leno was moved to 10:00, where the Jay Leno Show failed because, well, it wasn’t funny, while The Tonight Show was consistently losing out to The Late Show with David Letterman in the ratings war for the first time since Leno took over from Johnny Carson back in 1992. Zucker and NBC ultimately chose to axe Conan after only six months, handing the reigns back to Leno (and subsequently forking over almost $40 million to Conan as a severance).

In writing War for Late Night, Carter’s biggest challenge was to tell a story that had already been told in newspapers daily and was carried out on TV nightly in your living room for the better part of a year. Yet he does so seamlessly, thanks to a narrative voice that makes it possible for the reader to legitimately lean forward with interest as he discusses the intricacies of advertising revenues and minute-by-minute ratings analysis- which is no small feat. That the book reads like the late night TV version of All the Presidents Men is a further credit to Carter, who does his best Bob Woodward by conducting an anthropologist’s share of primary research and interviews with nearly all players involved, from agents to executives to the hosts themselves.

Any ardent non-fiction reader will enjoy the structure of War for Late Night, as woven in between details of closed-door negotiations between executives from  the Big Three networks (…and FOX) are concise yet thorough biographies of some of the funniest comedians in late night TV including Conan, Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson.

“I knew it was official this morning when NBC dropped off all my CD’s and picked up its lava lamp”, Conan O’Brien told Tonight Show viewers on January 10th, 2010, of the news that Leno would return to host the show, but not before adding that the network insisted, “I must return the Etch-a-Sketch that my contract was written on”.

By then the national media had pitted Jay Leno and his “win at all costs” attitude against Conan’s “it’s just an honour to be here” mentality, which ultimately saw Leno back on top at NBC with O’Brien left to wander late night opportunities on smaller networks, like TBS.

The War for Late Night dismisses that prominent misconception, amongst others, instead offering insight and unparalleled access into the manipulative world of late night television, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Everyone who follows has a theory as to what went wrong during the Tonight Show saga, and after reading War for Late Night, you’ll have your very own, too.

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