"War for Late Night" lifts lid on NBC turmoil

Tue Nov 9, 2010 3:24am EST
 
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By Richard Rushfield

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Isolated. Under constant pressure. Worked to the bone. Cut off from their public by a bubble of sycophants.

Brought to power on a wave of impossibly high expectations and then judged an abject failure at their first stumble, their every utterance picked over by an unforgiving 24/7 media and blogosphere while their fate is toyed with by dark, shadowy powers beyond their control.

What kind of lunatic would want to be a late-night talk-show host, that crucible of fire in which mighty careers are brought to ruin?

The answer, as portrayed in New York Times reporter Bill Carter's "The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy" (Viking Adult, 416 pages, $26.95), is the sort of lunatic with a lot of unresolved emotional issues that he (almost always he) channels into the pursuit of that mythic grail: the Carson legacy.

In choosing the killing fields of late-night as his subject for two books (the first, the definitive "The Late Shift," covered Leno's ascension to Carson's throne; War is something of a sequel), Carter sows the most drama-rich soil on Earth. Nowhere else in entertainment does the contest for success become such gladiatorial combat -- personal, underhanded and vicious.

In recent entertainment history, it is hard to think of a fracas that scorched more earth than the slow-motion jetliner crash of NBC's Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien fiasco. Drawing on the unparalleled access earned by his previous work, Carter captures every nook and cranny of the battle. Much in the manner of Bob Woodward's White House volumes, Carter brings readers into the "scenes" of the drama, taking us into the minds of most of the major players and sharing in particular a Conan's-eye view of having the "Tonight Show" rug yanked out from under you. At points the book goes further than all but the most committed talk-show nerds will wish to travel, like cataloging precisely where every agent and manager was when they heard the news that Leno was moving to 10 p.m., for instance.

But more important, "War" provides our first nonhysterical consideration of those historic days, a picture much more complicated and tragic than the morality tale that initially emerged. In that version, which has become accepted lore, the wide-eyed doe (O'Brien) was toyed with and dismissed by vulgarian NBC money-grubbers in their efforts to placate a ruthless host (Leno). Thanks to his treatment of Conan, Jeff Zucker has joined Donald Rumsfeld and Bernie Madoff in America's pantheon of disgraced ill-doers, while Leno drinks each night from a poisoned chalice.

Carter shows that while the transition was handled as ineptly as could be imagined by NBC brass, whose bottomless capacity for wishful thinking is truly impressive, the fiasco was brought on less by malice than by executives wrestling with how to manage and maintain a business in sharp decline.   Continued...

 
<p>Host Jay Leno gestures during a panel for his upcoming television series "The Jay Leno Show" at the Television Critics Association Cable summer press tour in Pasadena, California August 5, 2009. The series debuts on September 14. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>