The War for Late Night: Smiling Politely Towards Disaster

Anyone who picks up Bill Carter’s new book about last January’s late night TV debacle—The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy—looking for a villain is destined to be disappointed. This is not for lack of effort. The book is impressively comprehensive about NBC’s decision to move Jay Leno from The Tonight Show to primetime and back again and the disaster that followed. Carter gives detailed histories of and various perspectives on all the major players involved—Leno, Conan, Jeff Zucker, David Letterman, Jeff Gaspin, etc.—but in the end nobody comes off as an evil monster responsible for the train wreck. Instead, we get a fascinating example of how a bunch of people all acting with the best intentions can lead to the worst possible outcome.

“If they’d come in and shot everybody—I mean, it would have been people murdered. But at least it would have been a two-day story. I mean, yes, NBC could not have handled it worse, from 2004 onward.” —Jay Leno

The first and most commonly accepted culprit in this mess is NBC, specifically Jeff Zucker. Zucker is the President and CEO of NBC Universal (though he won’t be for much longer: Comcast has chosen a new CEO once their purchase of the company is finished) and, more importantly, was the architect of NBC’s late-night plan as far back as 2004 when, as President of NBC Entertainment, Zucker devised the plan to phase out Jay Leno and hand The Tonight Show over to Conan O’Brien.

Starting in 2001, Conan had been fielding offers from Fox and ABC to come anchor the new night lineup on those networks—very lucrative offers. In fact, Fox’s starting offer was seven times Conan’s salary at the time on NBC. In order to keep Conan, NBC dangled The Tonight Show in front of him. They couldn’t match Fox’s salary, but they could offer Conan his dream job of following in Johnny Carson’s footsteps. In 2004, NBC made it official, telling Leno that they would extend him for five more years, but that then the hosting duties would be handed over to Conan.

A lot of people have interpreted this plan as a cunning move on the part of Zucker to keep both late-night stars. Just ten months ago I myself called it “clearly a case of NBC wanting to have its cake and eat it too.” Carter’s book, however, makes the move seem less nefarious and more practical. It’s true that there was an element of opportunism to keep both stars under contract—Carter refers to being able to keep both Leno and Conan as NBC’s “holy grail” several times—but it was mostly about compromise. Of course, the network wanted to keep two profitable shows on the air for as long as possible, but it was also trying to be as fair as it could to both of its hosts. Most NBC executives, from Zucker to Rick Ludwin (the head of late-night programming) and Lorne Michaels, sincerely believed in Conan and wanted to give him The Tonight Show—they just wanted to do it in the most seamless way possible. They didn’t want to be seen as forcing anyone out or passing anyone over, as they had in 1992.

The truly selfish or heartless thing for NBC to have done would have been to say to Conan: “Great to hear about your offer from Fox…Good luck! We have Jay Leno, the ratings king of late night, and we’re going to ride him until he literally drops dead at his desk, which he plans to do. So if you want a raise you can go somewhere else and we’ll find some other dirt-cheap host with as little profile as you had when we gave you Late Night.” But they didn’t do that. They made a plan to give Conan the carrot they had been dangling in front of him. They just had to deal with Jay Leno.

“Hosting The Tonight Show has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me. And I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life…unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.” —Conan O’Brien

Jay Leno is the other convenient villain in the late-night debacle. Leno was an especially easy target; whereas Zucker and the network were largely faceless, Leno was one of the most recognizable names in entertainment. Not only that, but he already had a reputation of playing dirty to host The Tonight Show, thanks what happened in 1992 (which Carter has also written about).

Carter’s book only reinforces how addicted Leno is to The Tonight Show. Leno hates it when the show goes on vacation—hates it so much, in fact, that he once asked NBC for a second writing staff so he could work all 52 weeks of the year while the primary staff got a break. Despite being very well-paid (though not as well as David Letterman), Leno claims that he spends none of his NBC salary (living instead off of earnings from his 160+ stand-up dates per year) and would basically do the show for free. When NBC told Leno that he was going to be replaced by Conan he was, understandably, crestfallen.

But to Jay’s credit, he understood the reasoning. When Zucker and Ludwin told him that the move was being made to keep Conan, Jay was sympathetic: “I don’t want to lose Conan either…. I know I don’t want everybody to go through what Letterman and I did. I don’t want to go through that nonsense again.” In order to prevent “that nonsense,” Leno assented to NBC’s plan, even though it meant giving up the job he loved and simply didn’t know how to live without. Far from being villainous, Leno’s initial instincts were actually magnanimous and deferential.

Of course, Leno didn’t quite go gentle into that good night, and this is what angers a lot of people. Hardly coming from any Machiavellian motives, though, this was a case of Leno’s perspective clashing with the perspective of NBC and its viewers. To many involved, including NBC executives, the plan was designed to usher Leno towards retirement, but to Leno it clearly felt like getting fired. He didn’t want to leave and his performance wasn’t suffering, but his bosses didn’t want him around anymore—that seems a lot like getting fired. The difference between retirement and getting fired is huge in one key respect: When you retire, you take your gold watch and go home; when you get fired, you start looking for a new job.

And that’s exactly what Leno did, and he didn’t have to look very hard. ABC and Fox—the same players who were after Conan a few years earlier—would have been thrilled to have the host who had consistently been first in late-night ratings. In order to keep Leno from going to another network—and competing with Conan once he was there—NBC  offered Leno numerous proposals: a contract to host periodic specials, an 8 p.m. talk show,* a once-a-week program on Sundays akin to Saturday Night Live. All of these offers were quickly rejected by Leno. Carter repeatedly quotes Leno’s own description of his job—“I tell jokes at eleven thirty at night—every night”—to show how unreceptive Leno was to leaving The Tonight Show.

*Although Carter doesn’t spend much time on this offer, it is intriguing to wonder if The Jay Leno Show would have worked at eight. At that timeslot, Leno wouldn’t have had such dire effects on the local news’ ratings, which means the affiliates wouldn’t have threatened to pull the show, which means NBC likely would have never tried to move Conan back to midnight…

Yet Leno ultimately did accept a different job. There are many possible motivations for why Leno took NBC’s  10 p.m. slot: Leno himself—ever obsessed with his image as a working guy—insists that he only did it out of deference to the boss, saying, “It didn’t seem like a good idea to me…”. On the other hand, many of Leno’s detractors, including Jimmy Kimmel, have suggested that Leno took the prime-time slot with the intention of undermining Conan’s ratings.

It seems unlikely that either explanation holds much truth. If Leno were only deferring to NBC’s wisdom, then why did he reject all of the options NBC offered him before offering him the ten o’clock slot? On the other hand, the image of Leno “out to get” Conan doesn’t mesh with several facts, like Leno inviting Conan onto his last show, or Leno turning down the opportunity to appear on Letterman the night of Conan’s premiere.*

*Another great “What if?” Carter’s book raises.

Carter offers two much more mundane—and much more plausible—explanations. First, taking the prime-time slot on NBC meant Leno would only have to be off the air for three months, as opposed to the minimum of seven had he gone to ABC (Leno’s contract with NBC ran until the end of 2009, meaning Leno could not have negotiated a new deal until January 2010 at the earliest). Given Leno’s obsession with working, this seems likely to have played a big role. Secondly, Leno didn’t like the idea of leaving NBC because he knew it would be beget acrimony: “I’m Italian. I know how this works…. Suddenly stories appear in the papers: ‘The arrogant Mr. Leno refused to…’ Or ‘Jay took a private jet to go to…’.” In other words, Leno didn’t want to go to ABC because he didn’t want to be seen as a Bad Guy. Just like NBC, Leno wanted to do right by everyone involved.

“I don’t really understand why they were so offended. Jay’s show isn’t working; your show isn’t working—how about a new idea? To me, when I see the numbers those two guys were getting, yes, it’s time to sit down at the idea table.” —Jerry Seinfeld

There remains a small group of people—mostly from a class of old-school showbiz types like Lorne Michaels and Jerry Seinfeld—who seem to find Conan’s behavior the most puzzling. At the end of the book, Seinfeld is quoted as being incredulous about Conan’s decision to leave NBC. He insists that it violates a basic rule of show business: “95 percent is just showing up…. You never leave!” If Seinfeld stops just short of blaming Conan, he at least finds Conan’s behavior troubling.

Someone who doesn’t hold back in his criticisms of Conan, though, is Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports and a former late-night executive himself. Ebersol* called Conan’s actions “chicken-hearted and gutless” and attributed them to “professional jealousy.” He called Conan’s show an “astounding failure” and was adamantly in favor of pulling Conan before any other NBC executive.

*Carter’s book may not have a villain, but Ebersol comes about as close as anyone. Ebersol, a longtime NBC executive best known for his work in sports programming but also active in late-night discussions, was an early Conan supporter, but seems to have soured on the show mainly because Conan didn’t listen to his own advice. In other words, Ebersol accuses Conan of arrogance because Conan didn’t take Ebersol’s advice about comedy.

Ebersol’s opinions are so irritating because they help propagate several myths about Conan’s show. The first is that Conan’s show was a financial failure. Ebersol, along with Jeff Gaspin, have each said publicly that Conan’s Tonight Show was the first ever to lose money. This may be true—though Jeff Ross, the Tonight Show producer in charge of Conan’s budget, calls it “total bullshit”—but it seems to hinge on the accounting trick of including the construction of Conan’s new set in his costs. It also neglects the fact that The Tonight Show’s profits were dwindling even when Leno was the host, thanks largely to DVR. Similarly, it ignores the fact that NBC was privately satisfied with Conan’s ratings, thanks to his performance in younger demographics.

The second myth is that Conan’s Tonight Show was a creative failure. Ebersol—caught up in his own beliefs about what it takes to succeed in late night—insists that Conan failed to connect with a broader audience because he never made the necessary adjustments to moving to 11:30. The problem with this line of thinking is that just as many people seemed to criticize Conan’s Tonight Show for being too safe and too tame—for abandoning the things that made him popular in the first place. Was Conan too weird, or not weird enough?

These first two myths bring us to the third inaccuracy that Ebersol and Seinfeld espouse: that Conan was being moved because of mythical creative and financial failings. This is simply untrue: Carter’s book makes it clear that NBC, while not thrilled with Conan’s early ratings and performance, was at least satisfied with them and in no rush to change things.* What was panicking Gaspin, Zucker, et al, however, was Leno’s performance. His low ratings were sending affiliates into a panic, and they were privately threatening to pull the show thanks to its impact on the local news. In other words, Conan wasn’t moved because he was a failure, but because he was a casualty of Leno’s failure.

*The only one who WAS in a rush was Ebersol, but, again, mostly because he was hurt that his advice had been ignored.

Ultimately, all three of these myths are part of a general complaint about Conan’s behavior. These old-school show business people seem to espouse the Sonny Corleone philosophy: “You’re taking this very personal. This is business and this man is taking it very, very personal.” The main problem with this line of thinking is that for Conan it was personal. Conan, after all, had twice turned down tens of millions of dollars because of a personal guarantee that he would be getting The Tonight Show. Conan had accepted NBC’s plan to put Leno on at 10 even though it hadn’t helped Conan’s ratings. He went along with these plans not because it made business sense, but because he personally felt loyal to NBC—the network that took a huge risk on him—and he didn’t want to be a Bad Guy.

So Conan took it personal because it had been personal throughout the process. You can’t insist that Conan was wrong to consider The Tonight Show a “lifelong dream” and not “just a job”—as both Seinfeld and Michaels insist—a few years after asking him to turn down money in favor of Tonight because it was his dream job. You can’t insist that it’s about business while in the same breath insisting that you “want to be fair to both” hosts.

Because what happened to Conan really wasn’t fair. Seven months is simply not enough time to determine a late-night host’s success or failure. Every host takes a few months to find his tone and, more importantly, it takes months for the audience to get used to the host. The secret to a host’s success is familiarity. Think of how the population remembers Johnny Carson: The memories don’t center on his sense of humor (though he was obviously hilarious); they center on his constancy. What was important wasn’t that he was always funny, but that he was always there.* Nobody can earn that feeling in seven months, it can’t help to be pushed back to 12:05.

*The closest equivalent I can imagine for our generation—in terms of audience loyalty and a host’s ability to unite viewers—is probably Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. There are plenty of nights where I don’t really laugh at The Daily Show at all, but I still watch it for routine. And the Rally to Restore Sanity, whatever your feelings on it, showed the regard Stewart’s audience has for him.

Conan had tried to be a good guy, and was suddenly being told it was about business.

“Let me just take you through what will happen when you leave. When you leave, the show will get worse. But not all of a sudden—gradually. And it will take the audience a while to figure that out. Maybe two, maybe three years. And when it gets to be, you know, awful, and the audience has abandoned it, then we will cancel it. And the show will be gone, but we will still be here, because we’re the network and we are eternal. If you read your contract closely, it says that the show is to be ninety minutes in length. It is to cost X. That’s the budget. Nowhere in that do we say that it has to be good. And if you are so robotic and driven that you feel the pressure to push yourself in that way to make it good, don’t come to us and say you’ve been treated unfairly, because you’re trying hard to make it good and we’re getting in your way. Because at no point did we ask for it to be good. That you’re neurotic is a bonus to us. Our job is to lie, cheat, and steal—and your job is to do the show.”—Former head of NBC Entertain Irwin Segelstein

The biggest lesson to take away from The War for Late Night is that it’s often better for everyone if someone is willing to be seen as the Bad Guy. Towards the end of the book, Carter relays an anecdote from when Michaels quit Saturday Night Live in 1979, after chronic feuds with the network. Then-head of NBC Entertainment Irwin Segelstein responds to Michaels with a blunt statement of harsh reality. Segelstein clearly relishes being the Bad Guy but, coming at the end of a story in which civility and politeness ultimately led to disaster, that frankness is refreshing.

If any of the parties involved—NBC, Leno, or Conan—had been as willing as Segelstein was to play the Bad Guy, the situation almost certainly would have worked out better for everyone.

If Conan had decided to jump from NBC to Fox in 2001 for the money, then he’d still be on a network, NBC would have saved tens of millions of dollars in his salary and severance, and Jay Leno would have kept The Tonight Show. If NBC had decided not to offer Conan the The Tonight Show in 2004, then they’d have avoided all the recent negative publicity (plus Conan’s salary and severance), while Conan would have gotten his big payday and an earlier timeslot while Jay kept Tonight. If NBC had simply fired Leno and let him go to ABC, then Conan would have kept his dream job and Leno would have preserved his timeslot and avoided tons of backlash. If Leno had in 2004 told NBC to take its “transition plan” and shove it, then NBC would have either left Leno in his job and let Conan take the money, or given Conan his dream job and let Leno take the money.

But nobody wanted to be the Bad Guy. As a result, NBC is left with a greatly wounded franchise, Leno’s ratings are dwindling, and Conan is on basic cable.

Fittingly, a “hero” only emerged from the story when someone finally risked looking like a bad guy. It was when Conan wrote his “People of Earth” statement, declaring that, for once, someone wasn’t just going to go acquiesce to someone else’s requests, that his ratings began to soar and fans began to rally in the streets (and on Facebook…mostly on Facebook) for him. In retrospect, it’s easy to forget that Conan took a risk with his statement, but Carter explores the possible negative legal and personal ramifications of the statement. After all, people like Ebersol and Seinfeld were befuddled by the statement, and NBC executives mostly reacted furiously to it. Conan, however, was unwilling to just continue smiling politely while the situation got worse. The huge success that came from Conan risking a bad reaction should really make you wonder why nobody had done it earlier.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on November 21, 2010 at 9:13 PM

    It sounds like an interesting book and a complex story, but John I have to correct you on one point. The late night pantheon is replete with highly successful folks who failed spectacularly in short order -Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase, Alan Thicke, Pat Sajak, Magic Johnson (what?), and even John Stewart. Joan Rivers had been a regular fill-in for Johnny Carson and Chevy Chase was thought to be the next Johnny Carson, yet both fell flat on their respective faces rather quickly . Alan Thicke was an unknown from Canada who later found fame in a sit-com with a ridiculous premise, a psychologist with a home office who has funny things happen in his home (yes, it sounds exactly like my life). Pat Sajak struggled with the idea that talking to people is much more difficult than making fun of them while Magic, well, was a great basketball player.

    What was unique about Conan is that he had been very successful as a late, late night host, much like David Letterman, who he had replaced. Letterman obviously went onto great success on CBS with a younger demographic initially, and I am sure that NBC felt Conan would do the same. I do agree that NBC did not give him enough time, but late night can in fact be very cruel. Others like Joey Bishop, the funny guy in The Rat Pack, who by the way had Regis Philbin as his sidekick, and Dick Cavett were late nighters that were on for several years, but both had ratings that paled in comparison to Carson.

    The reality is that now late night talks shows are a bit of a relic of the past. They no longer garner huge audiences. Carson would have as many as 20 million people watching him, Leno and Letterman get around 3 or 4 million today. But, whether it is Chelsea Lately, the new Conan, Letterman, or Leno there still is an audience and still some money to be made.

    p.s. Moe Howard, of The Three Stooges, once had a short-lived talk show, but it wasn’t late night. But, imagine Moe trying to interview guests utilizing his “nitwit” intellect!


    • Posted by John S on November 21, 2010 at 10:56 PM

      Yeah, Carter’s book basically draws the same conclusion you do: Namely, that the era of late night is pretty much over. Johnny Carson’s show used to earn NBC more money than its entire prime-time lineup combined–now NBC has more or less given up on the idea of The Tonight Show making a profit. It seems like once guys like Leno and Letterman retire, the shows will meet the same fate that once-standard network features like Saturday morning cartoons and daytime soap operas have met. If they exist at all they will likely have to adopt the basic cable model employed by Stewart, Chelsea, and now Conan: Smaller budget, smaller staff, fewer viewers.


  2. […] Aught Lang Syne « The War for Late Night: Smiling Politely Towards Disaster […]


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