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The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy Hardcover – Bargain Price, November 4, 2010
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Carter's writing is amazing as he makes you feel like a fly on the wall for the various meetings. He doesn't make judgements but gives us a balanced tale of the various players with full bios on Conan, Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and more. This allows you to get behind the people who are fleshed out wonderfully.
With Conan, Carter shows that his big problem was being too nice a guy and niave to the network politics. It's astonishing to discover that his people never secured a deal to make sure "The Tonight Show" always followed the evening news, which gave NBC some ammuntion. Another telling remark is on how Conan didn't do as much audience interaction as Leno or Letterman and considered himself a writer, not a performer, which cost him down the line. While Conan is shown as a sympathetic figure, he's not given a free ride by the author.
Leno, meanwhile, doesn't come off as some evil schemer but a nice guy in a hard situation. Carter paints the picture that Leno's decisions are due to his thinking in a time warp, still under the impression that "Tonight Show" is the only late night program people care about. As far as Jay's concerned, HE was the one who had "The Tonight Show" taken from him and he sees nothing wrong with taking it back.
While the focus is on those two, David Letterman gets a lot of attention as well. As in "The Late Shift," Carter illustrates that Letterman was always his own worst critic, taking so much blame on himself despite the wide respect people had for him (such as his post-9/11 speech). That attitude helped him remain popular in the wake of the intern scandal and gave him new fire when he took on Leno. As Carter points out, Letterman was the true heir to the Carson legacy, something NBC always ignored.
The other late night players are focused on (Although Carter does give short shrift to Craig Kilborn, dismissing his five-year run in a page) with how Colbert and Stewart robbed Conan of some of his buzz with younger viewers and their political influence as well as how Kimmel and Ferguson rose well. Jeff Zucker is also given huge attention as a man who can't seem to understand how bad NBC is in the ratings and putting way too much faith in Leno and other quick fixes that don't pan out.
The book comes alive when Leno's prime-time show crashes and burns and the fight for "Tonight Show" ignites. The meetings are wild and dramatic with Conan at one point exploding at NBC execs "what does Jay have on you?" The epilouge notes the shift in power with Jerry Seinfeld making the nice observation that people don't think about "Tonight Show" or "Late Show" but Jay/David/Conan.
While much of it may sound familiar ("the Late Shift" was powerful because there was no Internet back then so much of it came as a surprise) the book is great in its details and that it doesn't take sides helps you connect better. Thankfully, Carter avoids traps such as speculating how Johnny Carson would feel over all this and for anyone who wants the full story of how such a ridiculous situation took place, this is the best source you can possibly read and a great character piece to boot.
The writing style and flow of the story is excellent. The author does assume the reader has some basic knowledge of how the television industry works, but still provides concise and helpful explanations when needed. The access given to the author is amazing. Bob Woodward-type access. It seems that literally everyone involved talked to Bill Carter, and quite candidly at that. Granted, all sides surely gave their version of events, but thoughts and feelings are always clearly attributed to the different players.
The section about Conan's early years leading up to landing the Late Show in 1993 was very enlightening. Most of the information was new to me, and I have been following Conan for years.
The final few chapters, after the dust had settled, were especially readable and emotional. Carter clearly understood both sides of the story: on the one hand, some people become attached to television shows and talent on an emotional level. To others, it's all business and being a host is nothing more than a job. He cleverly steers clear of making any strong judgments in this respect, instead letting the story (and it's players) speak for itself. The epilogue, however, did give me the impression that that take-away message of this book is that late night television, at the end of the day, is a business. That may be true, but for the viewers, it's much more than that.