The Late Shift: Then, Now and Ahead

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana

You might see it as shallow to use this quote in this of all things, especially considering the man it came from, but it’s one of those quotes you can use for almost anything because of how true it is and why it has been used for so many situations from wars to civil controversies. Even situations involving white men in suits who tell jokes.

As this goes up, NBC’s getting set to put Jay Leno back on The Tonight Show after an absence of only 9 months and after a PR and scheduling disaster NBC has tried its darnedest to recover from. Much has been written about it so whatever I write would be adding to the huge pile over the Internet and in the papers and may not even be seen with as many eyes so approaching this topic was not going to be easy. As things were going on and many hours of funny monologues were being put on, something was brought into the public eye that I personally didn’t even realised existed.

While this whole Late Night mess was going on, people were talking about this movie called ‘The Late Shift’. A HBO made for TV movie about the first chaos in late night involving Leno and then Late Night host David Letterman over the void the late, great Johnny Carson left in 1992 after his 30+ years on The Tonight Show came to an end. But since the film hasn’t come out on DVD yet in the UK nor is it easy to access for someone not living in America, the next best thing will have to do.

Bill Carter is a veteran media reporter for The New York Times but he is most famous for blowing the lid off of what happened the 90s and giving the most in depth look to the first Late Night fiasco involving old rivals Jay Leno and then host of Late Night, David Letterman in The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and The Battle for the Night back in 1994. What should just be a simple case of ‘Man gets show, other man doesn’t’ turns into a drama that spiraled out of control and is still being felt now on both sides.

What made this book special is that, whilst you can freely find out what happened with Jay and Conan on various forums, there was no YouTube or Nikki Finke or TMZ to break these stories or to show highlights nor was Journalism as broad reaching as it is now with as many news sources and channels to discuss these in much more depth. When Jay was set to get The Tonight Show the first time in 1992, it was splashed across the front of USA Today without NBC letting David Letterman know he wasn’t the prime candidate anymore, but with the growth of Internet sources, these stories of money, schedules and cancellations were found out even before the first papers were able to get a sniff at them. Bill Carter used his experience writing for the Times to get as much information from as many people as he can and that kind of journalism, no matter what field, should be applauded.

Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon shaking hands at the last Tonight Show taping in 1992. It was the last time these two icons were seen together on-screen as Carson passed away in 2005 and McMahon passing away in 2009.

Setting out to do this, the main intentions were not just to review the book but to also compare it to The Late Night battlefield we have now. Whilst most of the big US networks (and some of the Cable networks) are trying to fight for a chunk of the Late Night audience with personalities like Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and new guy George Lopez getting crowds themselves, back in the late 80s it was very different. Any late night show before then had to face off against the ratings juggernaut of Johnny Carson, a man who strode into the job as though he was always suited for it. With his sidekick Ed McMahon, for over 30 years they both personified Late Night and what it was all about. Pure, unadulterated Entertainment.

Fox had its chance with taking then guest host Joan Rivers away from Carson to put her on her own show in 1986. Whilst it could have worked in concept, and the first show getting good reviews from critics, the honeymoon period was cut very short. With guests not willing to go on Joan Rivers’ show in the risk of denting their chances of going on with Carson as well as viewers not willing to do the same, Rivers was let go in early 1987 and The Late Show was kept around with guest hosts until October 1988 when it was eventually cancelled.

Fox would try again with The Wilton North Report in December 1988 and The Chevy Chase Show in 1993 but both only lasting a combined total of 10 weeks. Its longest talk show to date was Talk Show with Spike Feresten, lasting 4 years with the ‘advantage’ of only being on a Saturday Night. It was replaced in 2009 by The Wanda Skykes show, also on a Saturday night.

When Rivers left, Fox decided that the next host needed to be slightly different Rivers’ edge and personality. A young comedian stepped into the fray, attracting a high, young audience for his 13 week run as host before moving to syndication with Paramount Television, a process in America where shows are offered to local affiliate networks associated with the big names like NBC and CBS, and would soon become Carson’s, and Jay’s, big rival. Fox lost their chance to gain him after his 13 weeks ended. That man was Arsenio Hall.

The now famous episode of The Arsenio Hall Show where then candidate Bill Clinton first played his saxaphone became a fundamental factor in his Presidential election victory in 1992 simply because he was able to get to the young people watching Arsenio's show.

The Arsenio Hall Show, first started in 1989, was a show with a different flavour then Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The band was Jazz based, his jokes were more edgy and his guests contrasted with Johnny Carson’s big stars. Names like 2Pac, Michael Jackson, De La Soul and Eddie Murphy used it as a chance to reach the ‘MTV Generation’ and its broad syndication, whilst not exactly knock Carson off his perch, certainly showed that Carson’s time was running out as the King of Late Night.

Interesting to note, too, that CBS affiliates were picking to show The Arsenio Hall Show instead of CBS’ attempt at late night The Pat Sajak Show (Yes, THAT Pat Sajak), which launched the same night which turned that show from a good solid attempt at getting to Carson to one of the grandest bombs in television history, barely lasting longer than a year with horrible ratings. The show to replace it, and to eventually unhinge Arsenio’s status as syndication king? Late Show with David Letterman. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book takes turns going from Jay’s world to Dave’s world and what must be commended is the sources for the book. Carter got interviews from all the players of Late Night from NBC to CBS and even manage to get very open interviews and quotes from Jay and Dave themselves making the book as full of references as a book on the subject would have to be.

It surprised me, though, how much Dave disliked the backstage politics that went on in the industry. He would freely ridicule executives on the air for several different reasons and didn’t have an agent until he got Ovitz to represent him in finding a new home for him. It wasn’t because of anything in particular, he just never liked suits and never liked dealing with them. Some people would say good on him and with the suits that run around now you can’t blame the guy for taking that stance, but it kind of hurt his chances on taking over from Carson when you don’t really have anyone major to back you.

Not to say he didn’t have any because that was how he still had a chance of taking over, but you can’t expect to bite the hand that feeds you without not being able to get the feed. It wasn’t even like NBC wanted to lose him, either. When Dave was eventually allowed to negotiate for a new deal with another company, NBC went out of their way to say that they would gladly match any offer any company would bid for Letterman outside of possibly giving him The Tonight Show.

Leno wasn’t exactly going through things smoothly either. His agent of many years, Helen Kushnick, became the Executive Producer of The Tonight Show and basically made life hell for Jay and the crew on his show. Threatening companies with not having guests on Tonight if they go somewhere else, having a weird hatred for Carson and being a general control freak on everything even down to sending the crowd home because NBC News didn’t stop their coverage of Ronald Reagan’s speech in time at the 1992 Republican Convention.

But the things you notice about Leno throughout the book was how much of a workaholic he is and how much content he had in just going out there and doing his job and how he really did not want this stuff with Helen to affect him. He wanted to be able to just go out there and do his job, proclaiming several times that if he didn’t do well and he wasn’t doing the job NBC wanted him to do, he’d flat out quit and leave. He was frustrated of course, and honestly who could blame him when no one knew whether your job was secure or not and the decision was out of your hands no matter what you did and when the chips were down, he launched a PR offensive across NBC affiliates to gain enough support that, at the most, a backlash from a majority of them would cause NBC to regret ditching him for Letterman. Compared to recently with Conan when he finally got his words in, the jabs felt more like light tease shots rather then hard hitting satire whacks that he was used to doing and helped improve his status and reputation.

A moment in the book that kind of made me smile in a weird way was when Dave was being shopped around to the big networks and television companies, his agent was former Creative Artists Agency co founder and Mega-scout Michael Ovitz who had got him seen to by Robert Iger, then head of ABC and Michael Eisner, then Head of Disney. It is probably more to me then most, but it was funny how all three of these men would somehow have a part in the history of the Walt Disney Company, chronicled in DisneyWar by James B. Stewart, one of my favourite books of all time and highly recommended, with Ovitz leaving CAA for a disastrous run as President of the company in 1995 lasting only 18 months and then Robert Iger, being brought in as Walt Disney International President in 1999, eventually running the ship on his own. It has no bearing on the quality of the book nor does it have relation to the story overall, but it was more of a curiosity that these three men would be involved in two big entertainment stories of this late night crisis and the crisis that went on at Disney in the latter part of the 90s.

The list of those coming to meet Dave was like a Who's Who of Entertainment Execs, companies and general big wigs. Rupert Murdoch representing Fox, Robert Iger representing ABC, Michael Eisner representing Disney, along with other companies with syndication deals. But, of course, it was then CBS President now Sony CEO and Chairman Howard Stringer (pictured) who would win Letterman in 1993.

The meat of the story comes from the real main players of the story. Jay Leno’s backers at NBC West Coast, Warren Littlefield and John Agoglia, and Letterman’s backers at NBC East Coast, Peter Lassally and Robert Morton, with NBC President Bob Wright smacked straight in the middle trying to find a way to keep Jay happy and Dave happy which at that point was like trying to keep two lions happy when the prey in the wild has gone. This is where the book really shines in a way only Non fiction can. The twists and turns the stories take, the way Carter describes them is something that must have surely helped HBO in adapting it to film. You are given descriptions of the big players and feel as though you’re following their actions to the T and it’s still surreal to think that all of it, down to the heated arguments and the actions taken by Jay and Dave for their respective sides, all happened. It’s one of those funny things, like DisneyWar, how you somehow think this is the one people want to watch and would be a ratings hit or a box office smash if adapted to movie and film instead of either Jay or Dave’s talk shows, even when the chapters were counting down to the first head to head to head (to head, if you counted Chevy Chase….which no one did after his first night bomb) between the giants of 11:30 at late night.

Even to compare it to now, it seems rather funny to think about. NBC was looking like a complete wreck trying to find a solution to something that they could have avoided or that there was no solution for in the first place and were keeping to false hope. You could tell that there was not consultation on either the feelings of Dave or Jay and it felt like a power play by Kashnick to get Jay onto the show she felt he deserved which in turn caused the rippling effect across the rest of NBC and the rest of the networks.

Sure it was something like this done before without really thinking, many big business moments consisted of just that, but not in this kind of motion and not after trying to find a replacement to a guy who made Late Night and NBC for 31 years. Now we have an NBC that is now trying to rebuild itself from the chaos of the mess it caused when, really, that mess could have easily been prevented with words to both sides and a mess that did not involve the loss of, and desperate salvation of, a very strong drama back catalogue. Along with that, trying to keep two guys which ended up becoming a ‘Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t’ situation.

I had to look around Amazon and other places to grab my copy and import it from the States but surely there will be a reprint to cash in on the latest buzz around Late Night. When it does, I highly recommend giving it a look. It’s in depth, it’s well written  and it let me know things I didn’t know not just about the Dave/Jay rivalry, but also about Late Night in general. It’s intention was to give you the full story and it most certainly did that in the most fascinating and gripping way possible. With the sequel being confirmed to be on its way from Carter himself, now is the perfect time to pick it up and to catch up on an interesting and eventful time in US television history.

So where do we go from here, almost 20 years later and with much mud still being slung around? Reminisant of 1993, both Dave and Jay are back at the top of the heap but Jay’s reputation of being ‘Mr Nice Guy’ took a serious hit with the goings on in January. It was not all his fault for trying to shift Conan out of the spot Jay was seemingly willing to give to (even though he said in a November interview that he wanted to stay at 11:35) him nor was it his fault that NBC signed him to a contract to put him in Prime time to great critical panning and a horrendous loss of viewership but he hasn’t exactly helped his own case out in the public. In his interview with Oprah in January, he talked about why he thought Conan was being treated like a failure:

This is an affiliate decision. Affiliates felt that the ratings were low. This was the first time in the 60-year history of ‘The Tonight Show’ that ‘The Tonight Show’ would have lost money. And that’s what it comes down to. It’s really just a matter of dollars and cents. If the numbers had been there, they wouldn’t have asked me. And they only asked me after Conan turned down moving [‘The Tonight Show’] back half an hour.

It's funny that Jay would say such a thing considering, before 1995, he was losing to Letterman but was able to stick on as host until the infamous Hugh Grant interview in that year after Grant's prostitution charges where Jay famously asked 'What the hell were you thinking?!.' A set change where Jay was put closer to his audience also helped Jay's 15 year dominance of 11:30.

Not to say that what Jay said isn’t totally true. Estimates have said The Tonight Show is going to lose $20m this year in advertising revenue and budget, the biggest loss in its history. But in an interview in August last year with PBS’ Tavis Smiley, two months into Conan’s reign on The Tonight Show, he said this about the potential ratings and financial problems he would face:

“Whoever has the job goes through this, It’s all part of the growing pains. [Ratings go] down for a while and then [they come] back up again. And I don’t think it’s fair to judge Conan on what’s happened in a month or two….I got beat up for four or five months, and you still go out with your chin up, fight the good fight.”

“Conan was number one for 17 years in a row in his spot. OK, he moves to another spot, it takes a while to find yourself, and that’s what hes going through.

With that, it seals a reputation of a man who seems a student of the game. He has learned who to trust (Many of the West Side NBC have been backing Leno for a long time) and how to use their trust to their advantage, especially Jeff Zucker’s trust. Heck, this is the same guy who was willing to lock himself in a closest to overhear what would be the biggest meeting of his life and use that information to his advantage.

Not to even say this was unusual or out of context because it is something that would happen anywhere else at any time (except the closet thing), but the public only saw this one way. Leno threw out Conan to take back his spot. But to be fair to the guy, he was the late night draw for many years and the youth vote they were hoping Conan would attract was not there but that could have several factors behind it and the prominence of not just YouTube but of Hulu and sites like Gawker.tv which had dedicated highlights from all the clips/monologues of Late Night shows during the whole thing must have taken a bite out of the rating too. Jay is being criminalised too much in all this and it is totally down to NBC on 99% of this, but Jay had a part to play and even though it was only a bit part, he did it the way most people probably would have done themselves.

Interestingly, in this new Internet revolution, someone uploaded his 2004 announcement about leaving The Tonight Show to Conan across the Internet which makes for very surreal viewing considering everything. Hindsight not as much being they key word but the major theme that goes through it.

Whether Jay could gain his audience back that made him number one for so long is something that will be discussed for months after his debut but it is not as much of a sure thing as it would have been 9 months ago. Experts are saying that it’ll be a ‘restrained relaunch‘ and NBC Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin said to Entertainment Weekly in January that Leno’s comeback would be ‘with some humor and a wink, not a sledgehammer. We will certainly be more subtle’ which is really the best way to do it.

Not sure if this is what they had in mind, though…not that subtle to me, especially compared to what it’s basically referencing, and the song played in it (Get Back? Really? ) but what do I know?

He has done one thing to help his image, mind you, as well as grown the reputation David Letterman and that premiered on the night of the Super Bowl game between the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts;

To be seen with your most heated rival is one thing, but to be seen promoting his show is something else. Deadline Hollywood’s Nikki Finke reported that NBC’s Execs weren’t too sure about it at first but it seems to have dampened the fires on his reputation a tad despite Rob Bernett, executive producer of Late Show, saying otherwise. Jay’s reasoning for doing it puts him at a slighter better light and said this on the last Jay Leno Show:

It was Dave’s idea. And when he told me – no matter what animosity there is, among comedians, a good joke is a good joke. It makes all [the hostility] go away.

Whether the hostility between Jay and his audience dampens when his show returns tonight remains to be seen with some saying ‘memory and sympathy can wane very quickly’ and it might. Television is a funny medium willing to forgive others for things that ‘normies’ would get their careers destroyed for so who really knows?

What we can all probably work out is that NBC are probably the biggest losers from all this. Taking away their lead in dramas such as Law and Order to the local news and The Tonight Show and replacing them with The Jay Leno Show alone did a tonne to damage to their already beaten reputation as a network but not being able to put their foot down with Jay and just letting him go after apparently being lured by other networks would be their own personal downfall. It was them that made the deal for the switchover in the first place so for Zucker et al to do a complete 180 is something that has to be frowned upon especially considering what was down on the table before. Sure, they had the right to do it since Zucker’s running the ship but at the same time, Jay was given at least 2 years before he struck gold and beat Letterman. It wasn’t out of the realms of possibility for Conan to have the time to do this but losses might have overwhelmed NBC too much to do something drastic. Trying to move The Tonight Show to 12:05? Not as much drastic as downright stupid.

With the sequel to The Late Shift book probably months away, it has to be asked if HBO would be willing to do another movie of this situation. Who would play whom? All I know is TV Squad's suggestion that Andy Ritcher should be played by Patton Oswalt must happen*.

And Conan? He’ll be fine, grand in fact. Nikki Finke has talked about hearing from a source that Conan was being offered positions at almost every channel going, Cable, Network and syndication company, with Fox being the prime and most realistic target.

Whilst I have mentioned that Fox has not had the best time in Late Night nor has it the history NBC and CBS have, what it would bring to the table with Conan is almost 18 years of reputation built from working on both Late Night and The Tonight Show. It’s not like they’re bringing in Funny Guy A to take his spot with a crappy show and hoping it works. He’ll also bring in a tonne of momentum from losing his job and the support he’s received from comedians, web communities and from how his last week was simply thrashing Letterman at every turn. With ABC keeping hold of Kimmel, CBS out of the question and his other choice being to head towards Cable, where people have talked about Comedy Central to be with Stewart and Colbert, Fox is probably the best he’s ever going to get.Their network was the one that lost them the shot at getting Arsenio Hall for Late Night, but Rupert Murdoch was one of the people who personally went to see Letterman about doing a show on Fox and he’s come out and said they’re looking into getting Conan. I doubt Murdoch wants to hear the words ‘The One that got Away’ for a third time.

And before anyone worries about the potential lack of momentum from the break to his new show wherever he ends up, rumours are he’s set to do a live stage tour across the country which is good for those who miss watching him and good for him to keep himself in the publc eye. It also helps that, for the next few months, Conan’s got about $32 Million to spend on whatever the hell he wants to which isn’t bad at all. Not Bank bailout money, but you get what you get.

The final questions most will have how this has affected Late Night in general. Once a proud tradition of NBC, they’ve tried their best to wreck it beyond repair whilst CBS has able to make a star out of Craig Ferguson with the Late Late Show directly after Letterman, which was part of CBS’ deal to snag Letterman in the first place, despite it constantly competing in ratings with Jimmy Fallon, the man who took over Conan O’Brien’s Spot on Late Night on the last remaining big Late Night spot NBC has.

With three late night shows competing for 11:30, will there be enough advertising money to go around for all three especially as America is still recovering from a recession? Will we be able to properly measure someone’s success on their respective shows with the growth of the internet as a genuine form of media and DVR as a way for people to watch what they want when they want to? Can these Jay, Dave and Conan’s careers survive every weeknight for the next two years never mind 10 with the rapidly changing television industry?

Not even just Conan, Jay and Dave, how about those on cable doing well? The Colbert Report competes with the first 30 minutes of both The Tonight Show and Late Show. George Lopez's TBS show's final half hour does the same and has impressed in terms of first week ratings. How will this be affected if and when Conan goes to a new network? Is the Late Night town big enough for everyone?

There’s too many questions that may get answered straight away and may not get answered for a few months but there is one thing we do know; It’ll certainly be a good enough reason to stay up past your bedtime.

*TV Squad’s casting choices are right here.

Bill Carter did an interview about the Late Night situation with Media and Marketing Editor Bruce Headlam on The New York Times website, which you can see right here.

2 Comments

  1. TFR500
    1 March, 2010
    • Eoin Mason
      1 March, 2010