The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy

The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy




It was supposed to be so simple. In 2004, NBC announced that Conan O’Brien would succeed Jay Leno as host of the iconic ‘Tonight Show’ after Leno’s contract expired in 2009. Bill Carter’s ‘The War for Late Night’ is standing proof that in television, things are hardly ever as simple as they seem.


A dramatic account of the politics and personalities behind NBC’s calamitous attempt to reinvent late-night television.
When NBC decided to move Jay Leno into prime time to make room for Conan O’Brien to host the Tonight show – a job he had been promised five years earlier – skeptics anticipated a train wreck for the ages. It took, in fact, only a few months for the dire predictions to come true. Leno’s show, panned by critics, dragged down the ratings – and the profits – of NBC’s affiliates, while ratings for Conan’s new Tonight show plummeted to the lowest levels in history. Conan’s collapse, meanwhile, opened an unexpected door of opportunity for rival David Letterman. What followed was a boisterous, angry, frequently hilarious public battle that had millions of astonished viewers glued to their sets. In The War for Late Night, New York Times reporter Bill Carter offers a detailed behind-the-scenes account of the events of the unforgettable 2009/2010 late-night season as all of its players- performers, producers, agents, and network executives-maneuvered to find footing amid the shifting tectonic plates of television culture.
©2010 Bill Carter (P)2010 Penguin Audio


How do I even begin to describe the events chronicled in ‘The War for Late Night’? NBC had a problem on their hands. In 2004 the network had promised that Conan O’Brien would succeed Jay Leno as host of ‘The Tonight Show’ in 2009 when Leno’s contract expired. As that time drew closer, it became apparent that Leno was not ready for retirement and NBC was not ready to give up his ratings dominance over late night. So the struggling network hit upon a solution. In the fall of 2009, they gave Jay Leno a show every week night at 10:00 PM. That decision set off a chain of events that would see Leno moved out of that show, back to ‘The Tonight Show’ and Conan O’Brien off of NBC and into the welcoming arms of TBS.
Bill Carter’s ‘The War for Late Night’ gives an account of everything that happened in the world of late night television between 2004 and early 2010. This includes biographies of all of the late night players including: Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert. It chronicles some of the bigger news events of the time such as the 2007-2008 writers strike and a couple of the scandals involving Letterman that unfolded on America’s television sets.
Carter paints a picture of late night television that goes beyond the jokes and the set and into the board room and the research department. Reading this book will help you to understand how something so illogical could have been allowed to happen and indeed how it might have been unavoidable.
The highlight of the book is the period after the launch of the Jay Leno Show in September 2009. This is when all of the political intrigue and opposing forces started to come together and led to a public relations nightmare for NBC early in 2010.
It may be unpopular for me to say, but I will say it anyway: I actually felt a little sorry for Jay Leno at times in this book. The man was forced out of a job that he didn’t really want to leave in the first place. Leno exited ‘The Tonight Show’ in 2009 on someone else’s terms, all because NBC executives feared losing Conan O’Brien to a competitor.
If I felt a little sorry for Leno at times as the story played out, I feel sorry for Conan throughout the whole thing. He waited five years to get the job he had dreamed about since childhood. He was given the impression that Leno would not be around to cast a long shadow over his efforts and then he saw it all vanish in 7 months. I hope that Conan is professionally very happy at TBS because if he is that means he ultimately came out a winner.
It is hard to imagine that we will ever see anything quite like the Leno/O’Brien disaster again in the future. Then again, I couldn’t have envisioned anything like the Leno/O’Brien disaster when it was actually playing out. I guess you never know what can happen when powerful people have conflicting agendas and are unable to settle on a clear vision for the future.


Bill Carter covers the television industry for the New York Times and has written several books covering the television industry. ‘The War for Late Night’ is actually a sequel of sorts to Carter’s ‘The Late Shift’. ‘The Late Shift’ covered the decision to go with Leno as host of ‘The Tonight Show’ and Letterman’s subsequent move to CBS. ‘The Late Shift’ is near the top of my wishlist of books I want converted into audio.


Sean Kenin made an interesting decision when he was narrating this book. He thankfully did not attempt to do impersonations of any of the late night hosts. What he did do was try to match a certain cadence to them, Leno in particular. He seemed to read Leno at a faster pace than some of the other dialog in the book.
He did a good job of acting when it was required. At times listening to his performance, I felt like I understood what toll all of this was taking on Conan O’Brien as all of these events unfolded. He did a good job of conveying the tense nature of some of the meetings that took place throughout the transition and hit a lot of the right notes when it came to delivering the humor.


There is some funky music to open and close the book but there are no other musical cues or use of sound effects on the track. There are chapter stops in all of the appropriate places. I did seem to detect some different volume levels at points on the track. I can’t really describe what I’m hearing except to say that at times it just sounds different. I’m thinking these changes might be the sign of when a different recording session was started.
I was distracted by them but only because I was looking for them. I’m not sure if your average listener will hear any difference in sound at any point on the track, but it is something to look out for if you’re of a mind to do so.


It was in January of 2010 that the wheels started to move to put Jay Leno back in the host chair of ‘The Tonight Show’ after seven months of Conan O’Brien. All of those events, which are chronicled here, seemed so insane at the time. However, as hard is it is to believe, looking back now, NBC came out ahead.
NBC was a punching bag at the time. Executives like Jeff Zucker made a giant mess of things and suffered a lot of black eyes in the process. However, in the end, the network got several more years of Leno ratings to bring in revenue. Displacing Conan O’Brien also allowed the rise of Jimmy Fallon who is doing quite well as the current host of ‘The Tonight Show’.
Five years after the climax of this book takes place, so much about late night television has changed. Leno was replaced by Jimmy Fallon who was succeeded as host of ‘Late Night’ by Seth Myers. Conan O’Brien is on TBS. David Letterman is retiring in 2015 and will be replaced by Stephen Colbert. Craig Ferguson is out as the host of ‘The Late Late Show’. Soon, only Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart will have the same jobs that they were in at the time this book was written. That’s a lot of change in a short amount of time.
Perhaps that is why I recommend this book so highly. There has been a lot of transition in late night television over the past few years. However, absolutely nothing compared to the insanity of when NBC tried to replace Leno with Conan and then ended up replacing Conan with Leno. It was a classic case of NBC wanting to have their cake and eat it too.


Title Author Narrator Publisher Genre Release Date Running Time Score
The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy Bill Carter Sean Kenin Penguin Audio Arts & Entertainment 11/04/2010 15 hours, 2 minutes 9/10


A copy of ‘The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy was purchased from Audible for review.