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October 6, 2015

Leno Had NBC Over a Legal Barrel, Says Bill Carter's New Book

by Joel Keller, posted Oct 28th 2010 7:00PM
Leno interviews Conan during happier timesAfter this past winter's Conan/Leno saga died down, most TV geeks (including us) were eagerly anticipating the other shoe to drop. And I don't mean the debut of 'Conan' on TBS, which is set for November 8.

No, what most of the people who followed this story thought to themselves was, "I can't wait until I read Bill Carter's book on this mess." After all, the New York Times media reporter wrote 'The Late Shift,' which is considered by many to be the definitive tome on the First Late Night War between Leno and Letterman. So he was in a unique position to write about the inside scoop of how the Second Late Night War went down.

Well, the wait is over, as Vanity Fair has published an excerpt of Carter's 'The War For Late Night,' which Viking will release next month. The excerpt details NBC's January decision to cancel Leno's 10PM show, move him back to 11:35, and push back Conan to 12:05.

Not much in the six-page excerpt is all that news-worthy -- it gives a dramatic narrative to events that most people who followed the story know about already. But one tidbit about Jay Leno's contract with NBC was revealed in the piece: His contract had put NBC over a legal barrel, giving Leno the leverage to sue the network if he was taken off the air.

"NBC had signed an apparently unprecedented guarantee to "pay and play" Leno-meaning he could sue, or possibly even seek an injuction, if NBC tried to yank him off the air," writes Carter. Unlike Conan, who hadn't even negotiated a timeslot provision in his contract, Leno had managed to shrewdly put himself in the position where he became legally indispensable.

The excerpt also paints a picture of Leno and his producer, Debbie Vickers, as pragmatists and Conan as a cockeyed idealist: "When Jay was a kid he'd dreamed of hosting The Tonight Show, too. But when he was an adult it became his employment. Debbie Vickers questioned why Conan persisted in seeing the show as a dream when it was, in fact, a job-and one that required bringing in winning ratings."

But, for the most part, Conan comes off as the hero in this segment. Some items that point towards that notion:

-- When both NBC Entertainment president Jeff Gaspin and NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker spoke to Conan, his producer Jeff Ross, and his agent Rick Rosen about their proposed late-night shift, Conan was very professional and measured in his responses. But he did manage to ask a question I'm sure most observers have had at one time or another: "What does Jay have on you guys?"

-- The now-famous "People of Earth" letter that Conan wrote saying he wasn't going to participate in the trashing of the legacy of 'The Tonight Show' was purely his idea, approved by the high-powered contract attorney Conan's team hired right after Gaspin told Conan about the shift.

-- Zucker comes off like Zucker, cursing up a storm and putting the pressure on Conan's people to make a decision quickly so the mess could be cleared up as soon as possible.

Like I said, for the most part, there wasn't anything in this excerpt that we didn't know already. And, while Carter can spin as good a yarn as any reporter out there, I wonder if the impact of this book is going to be a lot less than what happened after 'The Late Shift' was published in 1994.

That book was published when the web was in in its infancy, and most people still received their information via (gasp!) daily newspapers, magazines, and the evening news. Many of the juicy tidbits of the Leno-Letterman battle, like Leno's famously eavesdropping on an NBC meeting about his struggling 'Tonight Show' while perched in a storage closet, were not out in a public forum before the book was released.

But this time around the story was squeezed dry by all of us in the entertainment news business; every rumor, every anonymous quote, every scintilla of information was published to the point where people were asking us to stop. Can Carter reveal any bombshells this time around because of this blanket coverage? I'm not sure. But the book is still going to be entertaining as hell to read.

Are you looking forward to the release of 'The War For Late Night?'

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter.)

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As I See it

NBC had the option to make Conan sit out for 2 years. At one point Zucker was so mad he threatened to do that. Neither side wanted a long court battle. Even if Conan had no legitimate claim they still would have been hung up in court for years.

What is coming out is that NBC refused to let Jay out of his contract after his show was canceled.

What is also coming out is that Conan's manager orchestrated the hate campaign in the media against Jay.

October 29 2010 at 11:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
As I See it

Some spinning seems to be going on in this article. Joel, what you are conveniently not mentioning is that Jay passed up a deal with ABC to stay at NBC. Of course Jay was going to make sure his contract was iron clad. What person in their right mind wouldn't? He's dealt with NBC for years and knows how they will wiggle out of agreements given half a chance.

If you want to blame anyone, blame Conan's lawyers for not having the important clause in Conan's contract that both Jay and Letterman had in theirs which was that the Tonight Show would directly follow local news. You can't blame Jay for Conan's lawyers stupidity. Nor can you blame Jay for Conan's remarks about Jay on his show that were inappropriate and made it impossible or NBC to support Conan any longer.

At some point Conan needs to take responsibility for his own missteps.

October 28 2010 at 10:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to As I See it's comment

I don't really think Conan made the mistake of not having that clause in his contract. His lawyers were still able to make the argument that there was enough implication that his show was supposed to come on after the local news. If they weren't, NBC wouldn't have had to pay Conan 45 million dollars to leave.

October 29 2010 at 7:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Manuel Reis

Hell yeah. This is going to be one of my holiday gifts.

October 28 2010 at 9:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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