When Leno went early

When my brother and sister-in-law and their kids were in over Christmas, my brother loaned me his copy of The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, by Bill Carter of the New York Times. Carter’s earlier book, The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night, established him as the definitive voice on this topic; I never read that one, but I saw the HBO movie – derided by some of its subjects, but with a blisteringly-funny performance by Kathy Bates as Jay Leno’s longtime manager Helen Kushnick.

Anyway, the new book documents the Conan O’Brien – Jay Leno brouhaha that came to a head in 2010. NBC, trying to hold on to Conan O’Brien during a surge in his popularity in 2004, negotiated a deal under which O’Brien would renew his contract, in return for which Leno would give up “The Tonight Show” in five years’ time, a process which NBC hoped would be similar to the long, amiable handoff from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams at NBC’s nightly newscast. But Leno – a workaholic who resented being pushed out of his job at the peak of his (to me inexplicable) popularity – made noises in 2009 about jumping to another network instead of retiring as first announced. So, NBC tried clumsily to hold on to both stars, giving Conan “The Tonight Show” as it was obligated to do but putting Jay into prime time in a disastrous experiment called “The Jay Leno Show.” Conan’s show struggled, which Conan and his supporters blamed on the weak lead-in from Leno’s program but which NBC executives blamed on Conan’s refusal to tweak his younger, irreverent comedy style for an earlier time slot and a broader audience.

The network thought both shows would find their audiences in time, but NBC’s affiliate stations, suffering financially from Jay’s weak lead-in to their late newscasts, demanded immediate action, and the network agreed to cancel “The Jay Leno Show” and proposed trying to shoehorn both men into late-night. This caused Conan, amid a wave of publicity painting him as the victim, to negotiate an exit from his contract.

I’m a fan of Conan and David Letterman, among others, and I’m about as far from a Leno fan as one can get. But I can appreciate Jay’s frustration at being seemingly pushed out of his job for no reason, especially as Carter portrays the situation. Carter presents the story in an extremely balanced and remarkably-detailed way, with details of the behind-the-scenes wrangling on all sides. He doesn’t present anyone as the hero or the villain, but gives each of the major players fair and compassionate treatment.

I especially loved his account of Conan writing his famous “People of Earth” statement, a public relations masterstroke in which he described his reasons for not wanting to host “The Tonight Show” a half  hour later.

It’s definitely an absorbing read, and a timely one, with Jimmy Kimmel’s move to an earlier time slot this week shaking up the late night landscape yet again. Leno is still at the top of the ratings, but he’s getting older, and the networks and advertisers crave younger viewers for financial reasons. That was part of the idea behind trying to put Conan in – as the host of the future. ABC probably knows that Kimmel won’t beat Jay any time soon, but it’s positioning him as the host of the future and hoping he’ll do better in the younger demographics than Leno and Letterman, both of whom will end up leaving eventually.

You may recall that I had a standing invitation to attend a taping of Kimmel’s show, complete with VIP treatment, until family members screwed up the deal by moving away from Southern California. Still, those same family members loaned me this really interesting book, so I guess that counts for something.