The War For Late Night Book Review

    icon Jun 09, 2011
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Going to sing you a song about a friend I know.
He has no time for a late TV show.
He ain't tall, completely bald,
My friend, Zucker.
He says his last name's pronounced Zooker.
He's a crazy mother-fooker.
He's the man who makes decisions.
He ain't got 20/20 vision (he wears glasses),
My man, Zucker!

He's the guy who calls all the shots.
What if he married Courteney Cox?
They'd be so in love with each other,
She'd be Courteney Cox Zucker!

And . . . And, I just got fired!

-Comedian Jimmy Fallon, singing to a group of NBC executives, network affiliates, and potential advertisers


Jeff Zucker is a putz.

Better make that King Putz after the chief executive officer at NBC made one bad decision after another . . . thus destroying the one-time friendship between Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno and costing the network millions.

The behind-the-scenes account of what happened are detailed superbly in The War For Late Night (When Leno Went Early And Television Went Crazy), a book by New York Times national media reporter Bill Carter (Viking Press, 405 pages, $26.95 U.S., $33.50 Canada).

Anyone who ever had a keen desire to know how the television industry works will love the blow-by-blow account of agents, handlers, executives and the stars themselves in one of TV's most idiotic decisions ever - moving Leno to prime time. Zucker was the one who gave his stamp of approval on the move as his minions worked feverishly to keep both Leno and O'Brien happy.

NBC, a network that had once taken in as much as $800 million a year in profits, was drowning in red ink after years of disastrous prime time ratings. The National Broadcasting Company, however, could always hang its hat on the iconic Johnny Carson, long-time host of the Tonight Show franchise. The Tonight Show, which debuted in New York City before moving to Burbank, CA., was a tremendous money-maker for the network. So when Johnny finally retired his coffee mug and said his last good-byes, the ratings giant left NBC with a rather large problem. Who would be his replacement?

David Letterman, whose own late night show followed the Tonight Show at 12:35 a.m., was the heir apparent to Carson. Carson helped Letterman break into show business as he allowed the ex-weatherman to appear on the Tonight Show numerous times to hone his comedy act and the duo ultimately became good friends. But the fool-hearty brass at NBC pulled a 360 and opted for another stand-up comic instead – Jay Leno. When Leno got Johnny's chair, Letterman bolted for rival-CBS and the feud was on. The two fought for ratings (usually won by Leno) and traded barbs in their opening monologues for nearly two decades. For NBC, Leno literally was a cash cow as advertisers gobbled up his homespun jokes.

Then along came O'Brien – a Harvard graduate - with his own brand of comedic (and musical) talent. The former writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live was tabbed by SNL exec Lorne Michaels to take over Letterman's old 12:35 a.m. slot behind Leno. It was a huge gamble for Michaels but who could question someone who lists Paul Simon and Paul McCartney as close friends? O'Brien's late night show started slow but gradually built a solid audience – especially with the coveted 18-35 age group. His popularity and ratings grew during his 12:30 p.m. tenure. When it was time to renew O'Brien's contract in 2004, NBC boldly promised him the Tonight Show chair in five years. And five years later NBC kept its promise. O'Brien, who followed Leno on NBC for 16 years, uprooted his family and staff from New York for a brand-spanking new studio built specifically for him on the lot of Universal Studios in Hollywood. Instead of referring to it as the Tonight Show, the new show would be called the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.

NBC had five years to figure out what to do with Leno and they came up empty. They didn't want to shove him out the proverbial door and have him bolt to another network as word leaked that ABC and others made serious offers. NBC finally devised a plan to keep him at the network by offering Leno a new prime time 10 p.m. show five days a week. The network also was looking at its own piggy bank since it costs considerably less to produce a prime time comedy show than a dramatic series. NBC and all of America got its chance on September 14, 2009, when Leno's new show debuted. It wasn't very good. In fact, it sucked . . . royally. Not only was it not funny, no one watched. The viewing public loves their prime time drama and shows like Grey's Anatomy, CSI (plug in any city you want), and Private Practice consistently topped Leno. From the word go, Leno at 10 was a colossal crash and burn. And, to make things worse for NBC, O'Brien, now three months into his new gig as host of Leno's old Tonight Show, slipped behind Letterman in the ratings.

Enjoying each and every nugget, of course, was Letterman.

After many hours of backroom deals and secret meetings, and burning quite a bit of jet fuel between New York City and Burbank on NBC's private plane, the network's chief peacock (Zucker) finally admitted defeat. NBC announced that Leno would return to his 11:35 p.m. for a 30 minute show. They told O'Brien he could still do the Tonight Show, but it would start after midnight. As the old saying goes, O'Brien was born at night - but not last night. He immediately balked at the idea by saying a midnight start would essentially be "tomorrow's show." After two weeks of negotiations O'Brien finally accepted a buy-out of $45 million . . . money he would divvy up with his staff. O'Brien's final Tonight Show was January 22, 2010, ending his 22-year relationship with NBC. Leno was back in his old chair March 1, 2010, after conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics which was aired by NBC. O'Brien signed on with cable network TBS after sitting out his six-month non-compete agreement.

NBC licked its wounds after losing an estimated $300 million in the entire late night fiasco. And Zucker? On September 24, 2010, just as the fall television season was about to begin, he announced that he was stepping down. NBC's new owners, Comcast, had no problem whatsoever with the decision.

Carter obviously did his homework when he wrote the book. He brilliantly delves deep when he writes about a neurotic Leno hiding in a closet listening to a discussion between a couple of network execs. Carter also revealed that Carson, a steadfast Letterman fan, actually would email Letterman jokes to use during his monologue; always following up with Letterman the next day to see if the jokes succeeded or bombed.

Besides the late night battle between Leno, Letterman and O'Brien, Carter nostalgically writes about past talk show hosts Tom Snyder, Bob Costas, Chevy Chase, Craig Kilborn, Greg Kinnear, Arsenio Hall and Dennis Miller. . . and reflects on current late nighters Stephen Colbert, Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel and Fallon.

One of the best parts of the book comes when Carter detailed how Letterman and Leno wound up teaming with Oprah Winfrey for a Super Bowl advertisement. Remember the trio of stars snuggled up on a couch together? Details of who reached out to whom could have itself been a stand along book.

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