Written by Books

The War For Late Night


Occassionally, when you delve into the non-Sky branded movie channels with names like True Movies or Movies 4 Men, you might have come across a TV movie called The Late Shift. It was a dramatisation of a book by New York Times television writer Bill Carter’s account of the hostilities surrounding the succession of hosts of the Tonight Show on NBC. Both the TV movie and book told the story of the shenanigans surrounding the retirement of Johnny Carson and the story of who would suceed him.
Jay Leno won out over David Letterman. Letterman moved over to CBS and created his own show there going up against Leno. And there, the two have been for the last seventeen years or so.
Fast forward to the last couple of years, and this book re-engages with some of those previous protagonists, as well as the new kids on the block. In particular, there’s Conan O’Brien.
For years O’Brien followed Leno’s nightly 11.35pm show with his own hour long 12.35am show. NBC, keen to avoid the mistakes they’d made years earlier when the Leno/Letterman issue became very ugly, decided back in 2004 to promise O’Brien that’d he take over the Tonight Show five years hence. Then, as those years passed by, they also realised that they wanted to hang on to Jay Leno, who’s numbers were still good, and who was number one in “late night”.
NBC’s solution was to bring Jay Leno forward into the 10pm hour where traditionally more expensive dramas such as ER had run. A talk show is much cheaper to produce, so they both hung on to Leno, avoiding the possibility that he’d end up on a rival network with a new show in the same time period, plus it saved the network a lot of cash. In the meantime, the new presenter of the Tonight Show was Conan O’Brien.
At least that’s what they’d hoped would happen. But as is the case so often in the entertainment industry, things didn’t quite turn out how all would hope.
Bill Carter tells a great story, and makes what are effectively internal wranglings between corporate executives a compulsive read. He’s spoken to all the key players and produced a very fair, and I’d say, pretty balanced view of procedings.
While in the UK we don’t have the history of these kinds of shows, despite over the years, various people trying to launch them, many of their traits are recognisable in shows like those of Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton. I do think it’s interesting that the most successful of the US late night shows is actually Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – it’s permamently series-linked on my Sky+. ITV2 used to show David Letterman for a while, and CNBC still shows a couple of Jay Leno shows at weekends. But largely, the big players in US late night are unknown to us. In particular, I find Leno’s brand of humour actually painful to watch. He’s a so-so interviewer compared to Letterman, but the forced format of the monologue is not to my tastes. I think our topical panel games like Have I Got News For You or Mock the Week tend to work in gags more naturally.
The ending of the whole affair is no real secret, although it’s quite astonishing how deep the hole that NBC managed to dig for itself was. They ended up settling for millions. And in the end, nobody won.
There’s a question-mark longterm over the future of these shows in a world where perhaps the short-form video clip is becoming pre-eminant in younger demographics. The shows exist because they’re profitable. But how long will that remain the case?
Anyway, if you’re in any way interested in the wranglings of how US TV networks actually work, then this is well worth a read. Carter also wrote the excellent Desperate Networks back in 2006.