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October 25, 2014

Bill Carter Talks About 'The War For Late Night'

by Joel Keller, posted Dec 2nd 2010 11:00AM
Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno
Now that Conan O'Brien is back on the air and is churning out the comedy on basic cable, it's safe to say that the Second Late Night War is effectively over, or at least it's in a cease fire state. After all the recrimination, the back and forth between Jay Leno, NBC, and O'Brien, and the giggling of Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman from the sidelines, the only question left to ask at this point is a simple one: "What's next for late night?"

I asked Bill Carter, who has followed up his acclaimed 1994 book 'The Late Shift' with 'The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early And Television Went Crazy,' whether he thought the current late night talk show format, especially at 11:30, is on the decline. "Yes. There's no question," said the New York Times television reporter, who examines the current late night landscape in the new book, a story that culminates in Conan's dramatic exit from NBC last January.

The big reason? Money. Carter details in the book how the recently-dismissed head of NBC's entertainment division, Jeff Gaspin, told him that 'The Tonight Show,' even with Leno restored as its host, will lose money for the first time ever. "I was shocked," he said. "Because this thing used to be a money machine."

But when he thought about it, the notion made sense to him. "They have a humongous band, right? How many pieces does Jay have on that stage now? They have a really big writing staff, they have a staff of segment producers, they have like a costume dept, and props, and all this other stuff around the host. And meanwhile, look at 'The Daily Show.' There's no band, it's a tiny studio, they have a writing staff and a host. You can sort of see the format moving in that direction."

Carter also speculated that, when Leno eventually does give up the 'Tonight' chair, and Jimmy Fallon is ready to take over, the format will morph back into what people used to see during the its earlier days. "You don't replace Fallon (at 12:30). You only have one show and it goes back to 90 minutes, the way it used to be with Carson. Then you eliminate a whole staff and all the band and all that, and you can maybe make it profitable again."

One of the aspects of the Conan/Leno story that seems to get lost in the shuffle is the fact that the Conan on 'Tonight' didn't really resemble the Conan on 'Late Night,' despite O'Brien's insistence that he would be would be the same Conan his fans loved.

In the book, Carter lays out many instances where NBC asked O'Brien and his producer Jeff Ross to broaden his appeal, requests that were generally ignored. But the weight of the responsibility of hosting the vaunted 'Tonight Show' ended up smoothing down whatever edginess Conan had. What ended up happening is that the Conan on 'Tonight' was too nichey for the older audience but too tame for the people used to seeing him on 'Late Night.'

Cover of 'The War For Late Night' by Bill CarterSo during our conversation, I asked Carter to put on a hat he doesn't usually wear during his day job and be a TV critic for a second. What did he think of Conan's performance on 'Tonight?' "I thought it was clearly not a done deal, that he was getting the broader approach that he and NBC both agreed he had to do. I do think he's an unbelievably smart and talented guy, and I would've trusted him to get it there, I think. He seemed a little off his game to me." Conan needed to get used to the huge set he was on, for one thing. "Playing in that arena, you just have a different feel to you as a performer."

When we spoke, O'Brien's new TBS show had been airing for just over a week, getting decidedly mixed reviews (though here at TV Squad, both Mo Ryan and I were flat-out disappointed). What did Carter think of the first week of shows? "One of the things that really stood out to me was that he came out and very prominently did the string dance," Carter said. "That was something NBC was so against him doing, because they thought that would alienate all the viewers. And I think he said 'No, this is what I do.' And so I thought the energy level was back to that, and looking more familiar to me.

"I guess I was a little surprised that the format did not vary from what he'd done before very much," Carter continued. "And I think he may find that he needs to add new elements as he goes along here. But again, you also have to be within the comfort zone of the host, right? You have to do what the host is comfortable with. And Conan likes this. It's what he's done his whole life, and he's comfortable with it. And the writers write to that."

Carter doesn't spare any words for both of the occupiers of the 11:30 timeslot. In 'The War For Late Night,' Carter details how a 63-year old David Letterman, for instance, no longer expends the energy he once did to innovate or change his show. He's expanded the monologue over the last few years, but that's about it. In fact, he insists on continuing to tape his Friday shows on Monday nights, despite the fact that audiences tune out because they can sense the Friday show isn't current.

"To me, that just is antithetical to what the audience is expecting," said Carter. "They're expecting a commentator on the day's news at the top of the show, and he's 4 days late. He can't really do that. So I think that is a factor." In addition, Dave no longer rehearses his show, which has led to more flubs than in the past.

"He knows his energy better than anybody else. But it's a factor now in why he is not beating Jay. Because virtually every week he's ahead of Jay until Friday. And then Jay wins Friday and it's either close, or Jay nudges ahead."

In 'The War For Late Night,' O'Brien comes off as the most sympathetic figure, but Carter does not portray Leno as some puppet-master, manipulating the situation behind the scenes. "This is not a Machiavellian plan," he told me. "If it was, who would expose himself to that amount of humiliation? I mean, seriously, what happened to Jay was not something that any performer would invite on himself. You know, he goes into primetime and he's utterly rejected, completely, within a matter of (weeks). By mid-October they were bailing on the guy."

Ultimately, Carter thought, the original sin of the entire story lies with NBC, who wanted to hold on to both hosts when O'Brien was getting offers in 2004, leading to the awkward "Jay is retiring in five years" malarkey. As far as Carter was concerned, the Peacock network should have picked someone and stood by him. That person, though, shouldn't have been Leno.

"Jay is 60 years old, OK? I think it's possible he could have gone to ABC and still been dominant, but it's also possible he'd have gone to ABC and kind of misstepped a little bit," Carter said. "I think the real thing they had to do, which they did not ever do, was make a choice. If Jay was the guy, if Jay really was the guy, and they decided, we can't lose him, then keep him on 'The Tonight Show,' take Conan off and send him on his way."

(By the way, Carter mentions TV Squad in the book, citing how Leno reacted to Nick Zaino's interesting interview with Andy Richter. Let's just say that Jay was not pleased.)

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter.)

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