The battle for Late Night: A new book explores the Leno/O'Brien feud

War-200.jpgFirst aired on Q (12/22/10)


As anyone whose television set is still glowing after the late local news knows, the biggest TV drama of the past couple years has played out not on prime time, but on the late-night circuit.

That's where Conan O'Brien briefly ascended to the throne, hosting NBC's The Tonight Show for a short period of time, only to see that show's former host Jay Leno eventually break back in to regain the crown. It was ugly, darkly comic and captivating television with an ending we all now know &mdash: Leno back where he started, O'Brien fleeing for basic cable and David Letterman sniping from the sidelines.

But the fact that we already know the ending doesn't make the story any less compelling, especially when told by someone for whom this latest round of wars must have a familiar feel. Bill Carter, a media reporter for the New York Times, previously mined the late-night television fields to pen a bestseller about the 1990s skirmish between Leno and Letterman for Johnny Carson's Tonight Show legacy. Now, Carter is back with his trademark unparalleled behind-the-scenes access and fine storytelling in a new book called The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.

As Carter tells it, the seeds for this latest feud might very well have been sown in that previous battle. NBC didn't want to risk repeating the shenanigans of the '90s, and so it was with the very best of intentions that a deal was struck between the network, Leno and O'Brien in 2004. At that time, O'Brien was red hot. He had just hosted the Emmy Awards and been featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. Leno, for his part, was still number one in his time slot, but was in his mid-fifties. NBC figured it could hold on to both hosts by guaranteeing Leno The Tonight Show for five more years, and then promising to pass the torch to O'Brien.

Unfortunately, it wasn't so easy. When Leno was still number one in the ratings after the five years were up, NBC really had its hands full. Leno was moved to a show at 10 p.m., but when that show failed miserably, the particulars of his contract with NBC (the network was obliged to keep him on the air for two years) sparked a series of events that eventually led to millions of YouTube views, intense media scrutiny and O'Brien's spectacular departure from the network.

All of this is handled magnificently by Carter, who presents an account of the events as even-handed as it is thrilling. The O'Brien here is more than the naïve, loyal victim we saw so often during the feud's heyday, nor is Leno the manipulative villain.

"I can't say that Jay didn't want to get back there at some point," Carter told Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview on Q. "But I think it's foolish to think he decided to deliberately bomb to hurt Conan's ratings."

Now that Leno is back in his old chair, he seems to be well on his way to re-securing a comfortable dominance of late-night ratings, something Carter attributes to Leno's broad appeal to a mass audience. It's a tactic he sees as completely deliberate.

"[Leno] was a sophisticated comic when he was on with Letterman in the 1980s, and he consciously said 'no, I've got to broaden myself out, so I'll be Bob Hope. I'll be this generalist,'" Carter later said. "It's doesn't play out well in the press, and it doesn't play out well with comedy fans, but he has a mass audience. NBC is selling soup, but this is Jay's way."

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