Bill Carter, author of The War for Late Night: Interview on The Sound of Young America

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Bill Carter

Bill Carter is the author of two books about the politics and people of late night television, and a media reporter for the New York Times.

His most recent book is The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, a behind-the-scenes look at the Sturm und Drang of the late night wars over Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, and The Tonight Show.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest, Bill Carter, is the national media reporter for the New York Times. He’s also made a name of himself as a chronicler of late night television programming. His first book, The Late Shift, was a best-selling story of the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman for the Tonight Show. His latest book, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, is the story of the improbable second act of that drama in which Leno fought it out with Conan O’Brien for that most coveted of television programs. Bill, welcome to The Sound of Young America, it’s great to have you on the show.

BILL CARTER: It’s great to be with you, Jesse.

JESSE THORN: Bill, tell me why this battle keeps happening. What is it that’s so important about this institution of The Tonight Show?

Click here for a full transcript of this interview.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest, Bill Carter, is the national media reporter for the New York Times. He’s also made a name of himself as a chronicler of late night television programming. His first book, The Late Shift, was a best-selling story of the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman for the Tonight Show. His latest book, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, is the story of the improbable second act of that drama in which Leno fought it out with Conan O’Brien for that most coveted of television programs. Bill, welcome to The Sound of Young America, it’s great to have you on the show.

BILL CARTER: It’s great to be with you, Jesse.

JESSE THORN: Bill, tell me why this battle keeps happening. What is it that’s so important about this institution of The Tonight Show?

BILL CARTER: There are only a couple of shows now that basically go back to the beginning of television. Today Show and Tonight Show, Meet the Press, shows like that.

JESSE THORN: As The World Turns.

BILL CARTER: That got cancelled. So it really is one of the eternal pillars of television. It’s a uniquely American form; it was invented by American television. Other countries have tried it with not much success, but America has really great comedians that can do this. I think The Tonight Show just became this gold standard of both television programming and comedy. If you were a comedian, that was the show you wanted to break your career on, and if you were good enough you wanted to host it. Obviously when Johnny Carson took over and did it for 30 years it really was raised into the stratosphere as an icon of American entertainment.

JESSE THORN: What was the power of The Tonight Show both over the American public and in the comedy world when it was at its peak in the early-mid 70s?

BILL CARTER: If you were any kind of entertainer you really had to make it on the Tonight Show. If you had your movie opening, if you had your album opening, that was the place to go. For a comedian, you watched Carson and you said, this guy is just masterful. He goes every night on the air, he comments on the national news and obviously he could make and break politicians by how he portrayed them. He had an enormous audience following him; he didn’t seem to have an agenda, so people really followed him, like, well, if he thinks Dan Quayle is an idiot, he’s probably an idiot. That was a big element.

For a young comedian growing up in that era, there was nothing like Carson. He’s on every night. Everyone in America saw it at some point in their lives. He was a guy that everybody saw. So that made him have an enormously powerful position, and one that if you were a comedian you wanted to get not just on the show, but get his sanction. If he decided you were good enough to sit with him that was a big step. If he brought you back, that was another huge step. If he gave his approval, and people would know he gave his approval, that really made your life. I can remember Letterman saying to me when he was first on the show and gave a great spot, and unexpectedly Carson brought him over. It was the highlight of his life. He came out of there feeling like he was on a cloud. He couldn’t believe this had happened to him.

JESSE THORN: How was that changed first by the very public battle between Carson’s chosen successor, Letterman, and NBC’s chosen successor to Carson, Jay Leno, and then the first ten years or so of Leno’s very successful reign as the host of the show?

BILL CARTER: I think what really changed was that Letterman proved, for the first time, that somebody could go to another network and create a real competition. Nobody ever really fully competed with Carson. There were pockets of competition, Dick Cavett and then Arsenio Hall, but nobody really broke through. Then you have this big star that NBC created going to another network and initially beating The Tonight Show. It really changed the equation because they were basically two equal performers. Leno would win in the ratings, but Letterman would win the Emmy every year. The people who were in the comedy world instead of saying, “There’s only one Johnny,” would say, Well, there’s two shows, we kind of like Dave’s show better but the public likes the other guy better. That was the fundamental change, The Tonight Show didn’t stand alone, it wasn’t the only place to go for that kind of thing.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is Bill Carter, he wrote The Late Shift and most recently, The War for Late Night. Both books are about scrambles for the coveted hosting chair of NBC’s The Tonight Show. In 1993, shortly after he lost The Tonight Show to Leno, Letterman departed his late night shift at NBC for The Late Show on CBS which he still hosts today. Late Night on NBC was taken over by a new face, Conan O’Brien.

Six or seven years ago - - I guess it’s a little more than that now, Conan O’Brien had finally established himself as the host of the show that came after The Tonight Show, Late Night. He was a very hot property. Tell me a little bit about what was going on in the minds of NBC when Conan started to emerge while Jay remained a very strong ratings winner.

BILL CARTER: I think one of the things that really motivated NBC was that they didn’t want to repeat what happened with Letterman and Leno. They wanted to figure out a way that they could keep both the stars for as long as possible, and then effect a smooth transition rather than having a fight between these two guys.

You have Conan just emerging, he’s getting on the cover of Rolling Stone, he’s hosting the Emmys, and he’s really making a name for himself with younger viewers. At the same time, Leno was winning easily. They’re facing a problem where if they don’t find a reason for Conan to stay he’s going to be lured away, just like Dave was. In fact, the time was interesting; it came up about eleven years into Conan’s run, which is the time Dave left. So you had the Fox network pursuing him very heavily, and offering him literally three times the salary to go. So NBC faced with that had to come up with some sort of a plan that could give Conan the only thing that would make him stays, which was The Tonight Show. At the same time, not throwing Jay right at the window, instead they came up with this five year plan. The longest transition I’ve ever heard of in television, which usually takes changes in five minutes. But they figured this was the only way to try and keep both guys for the longest possible period of time.

JESSE THORN: Here’s Jay Leno announcing that change on The Tonight Show back in 2004.

Conan O’Brien’s life goal, like a lot of comedians, was to host the Tonight Show. When this plan was presented to him he was willing to accept it because it offered him that.

BILL CARTER: Yes.

JESSE THORN: And also because, as you write in the book, he was very loyal to NBC.

BILL CARTER: He was.

JESSE THORN: Who had given him a chance when he was just a writer for The Simpsons.

BILL CARTER: Right.

JESSE THORN: What about Jay Leno? How was this plan presented to Leno and what did he make of it?

BILL CARTER: It was presented to Leno unexpectedly in a meeting. He thought he was just going to get his contract extended, as it had been extended routinely along this whole period of time. He did not know that NBC had already made the deal with Conan to guarantee him the show, so it was presented to Jay in a way of, well, we’re going to give you one more five year contract, but that’s going to be it and then Conan is going to get the show. I guess the right word for Jay’s reaction was poleaxed. He just felt like he was steamrolled over and felt, as he said, brokenhearted that he was being fired. He thought this was tantamount to saying, yeah, it’s in five years, but at the point you’re fired. Everything about Jay is doing that show and getting ratings and being number one. It was a real shocker, and it hurt him, no question.

JESSE THORN: It seems like Jay Leno is a bit of a get-along kind of guy. Did he protest it at the time?

BILL CARTER: He didn’t protest much. His initial reaction was, well, if that’s what you guys want. And his general demeanor is of a guy who doesn’t want to rock the boat. He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself that much by being aggressive, he doesn’t do that, but that didn’t last. He had seller’s remorse quickly.

JESSE THORN: During this five year period, there was much discussion of whether Leno actually had any interest in stepping down at the end of it, and as Leno started to make little jokes about it on the air and sort of passive-aggressively point out that he was dissatisfied with the situation. It became more and more clear that the top dog in late night TV was going to take his show on the road over to Fox or ABC at the end of that contract. What was going on in the halls of NBC with the people who had made this decision? For one thing, did they actually believe that he was going to quit; and how did they react as it became abundantly clear that he wasn’t?

BILL CARTER: I don’t know if they ever really thought he was going to quit; if they did, they really don’t know this guy. There’s no way you can think Jay Leno was going to quit. He gave me a great line, his mother was born in Scotland, and his line was, I’m Scottish, we die in the mine. That’s his approach. He intends to die on the air. So I don’t think they were convinced he would leave.

I think they thought by the time the five years is up, he will start to fade. He can’t maintain this pace. He’ll be close to 60 and his numbers will start to fade, and so it will be a natural progression, and he’ll do something else for the network. They wanted to have him be the Bob Hope of the network. We’ll have him on every once in a while on the show. But that’s not Jay, Jay has to do everything every day. He’s quite committed to that. When the time started coming and he wasn’t fading, then they had to look at it and ask what are we going to do. If he had gone to ABC, and it would have been ABC, who was very close to getting Jay at that time, he’s probably going to beat Conan because he hasn’t faded at all. Not only is that bad for network ratings, but it’s really bad for me, Jeff Zucker, because I made that decision. He had to figure a way, some way, to try to keep Jay at NBC, and that became his goal in the last year or year and a half, trying to find some offer he could give to him that would make him stay. It certainly wasn’t going to be the Bob Hope thing, every Christmas you do a special, that’s not Jay.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America from maximumfun.org and PRI.

It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse thorn. My guest is Bill Carter; he writes for the New York Times and is the author of both The Late Shift, and most recently, The War for Late Night. Each is the story of a battle to become host of the Tonight Show.

NBC was until just very recently owned by General Electric, and you write in the book about the way that being owned by General Electric affected the decisions that the CEO of NBC, Jeff Zucker, was making. What was their outlook? What was the length of their outlook?

BILL CARTER: They had very short vision because they knew this was a quarter to quarter business. Unfortunately, in television, that’s a really bad way to operate because you have to look ahead and try to buy the next thing that comes down the road.

NBC was failing at a really chronic pace. In regard to how this affected late night, the way they got Conan to agree to this five year waiting period was that they would guarantee him the show with a big penalty; the penalty was 45 or 50 million dollars, if he didn’t get it they’d have to pay him off. There were people at NBC who saw as time went on that Jay was doing really well and thought maybe we should keep him. Why should we give Conan the show, he’s not going to win. If we’re afraid he’s going to go to ABC and beat him, why should we let him go to ABC, we should keep him; let’s pay the penalty. I think Zucker knew that there was no way on earth GE was going to pay that penalty. Going to pay the guy 50 million dollars to go away for nothing? We’re going to pay that kind of money when we’re counting pencils? It wasn’t going to square. Again, that made him figure that my only alternative is to keep Jay somehow.

JESSE THORN: It seems like every decision that you chronicle that NBC makes over the course of this ten year story is defensive one.

BILL CARTER: Yeah.

JESSE THORN: That’s about avoiding something that they don’t like rather than doing something that they do like.

BILL CARTER: Exactly, that’s exactly the point. They never could make a choice. If they could have stepped back and said, here is what our choice is: We think Conan is the future; whatever happens with Jay, it’s too bad, but that’s it. That’s our choice. Or, we don’t know about Conan. If he goes to Fox, he goes to Fox, we have Jay, let’s stick with him. They just couldn’t do that, they kept trying to figure out a way to keep pushing the can down the road, hoping the circumstances would change, and then whatever happened would become clear. That’s why, in five years, Jay’s bound to fade, so that makes sense. But he didn’t. And then you have to protect that decision. We made that decision, so what are we going to do to protect that. It kept escalating on them.

JESSE THORN: Did they sincerely believe, and one can see from the book that while there’s not a huge amount of direct quotes, I can see that you spoke with a variety of levels of executives that worked on this problem at NBC.

BILL CARTER: Yes.

JESSE THORN: Did they think that any of these solutions were solutions?

BILL CARTER: Yeah. I think they believed that when they finally came up with this plan to put Jay at ten o’clock, that that would serve two purposes: that would keep Jay, it means he wouldn’t go against Conan, they’d be okay with Conan on the Tonight Show; and, their ten o’clock hour, which was failing anyway because they didn’t have money to put on good shows, they could put ton a cheaper show that would be relatively competitive because of the whole shrinking universe of television in general. They could therefore save money, keep both guys, and it would look like some brilliant master stroke.

JESSE THORN: And then the Jay Leno Show turned out to be horrible.

BILL CARTER: That was something they also should have anticipated. I’m not trying to pick on Jay, because what they were asking Jay to do was literally impossible for any comedian, but particularly for Jay. He doesn’t do this kind of thing. They didn’t want to call it a variety show; they didn’t want to make it a variety show. So instead they were going to make it a comedy show. Five nights a week, an hour long comedy show, who has ever done that? Nobody has ever done that. In primetime? Impossible.

JESSE THORN: If a sitcom has ten writers to make a half an hour a week, you’d need a staff of 200 to make that volume of comedy.

BILL CARTER: Exactly. And they were trying to stay away from the Tonight Show format to not totally preempt Conan. So they couldn’t fill it up with interviews back to back, so in the second act they’re trying to fill it up with newcomer performers who the producer of the show knew they would never put on The Tonight Show, and they’re in primetime now. So they built in failure to the show. It took years for Jay to figure out these departments that could make the second act work. Now he’s going to fill more time? It just made no sense. They’re driving cars around the parking lot, they’re having these pseudo-interviews on satellite that are supposed to be funny; it really was a train wreck. It was quickly apparent to the station that they couldn’t tolerate it. Quickly.

JESSE THORN: After some months of Leno’s primetime show struggling, and Conan’s Tonight Show not delivering in ratings either, NBC approached Conan asking that The Tonight Show be pushed back to 12:05, just after midnight, to allow Leno to proceed him for a half an hour. Conan didn’t agree to the change, and the conflict played out in the press, and even in the shows nightly monologues. Here’s a clip from one of the last Tonight Show’s with Conan O’Brien. You can also hear past Sound of Young America guest Andy Richter in this clip, he’s Conan’s long time sidekick.

I want to play this clip of what you describe Jimmy Kimmel as having recognized a TV moment, which is Jimmy Kimmel doing this frankly kind of awful segment on the Jay Leno show called Ten at Ten, which Jay Leno’s writers wrote B-minus jokes for C-minus celebrities, generally. Let’s hear a little bit of this.

BILL CARTER: Okay.

JESSE THORN: Do you think that NBC had an understanding of what this situation meant in the context of comedy? In the context of people who were doing creative work in the world of comedy; people like Jimmy Kimmel, whose first car had a license plate that said Late Night on it.

BILL CARTER: If you’re asking if they had a concept of the comedy value, the answer is a big fat no. They never think that way. They never thought to themselves, who’s the best host for The Tonight Show? If they thought that way from the beginning they would have kept Letterman. They would have said, who’s the better artist? We’re going to hire that guy.

There’s another part in the book where Jeff Garlin, a friend of Conan, said comedy fans like Conan, and people who just watch comedy watch Jay. He compared it to Kenny G and John Coltrane. Kenny G sold way more albums, but nobody thinks he’s better than John Coltrane. You know who does? NBC would, because he sold more albums. They would think that, that is the business they’re in. It didn’t matter to them that Dave was funny or Dave was going to be a problem, Jay wasn’t. Jay wouldn’t be malleable; he’d go to the affiliates, that made more sense to them. In the long run, they were probably right, that was right. He’s a broader guy. What they were wrong about was that they thought Conan could broaden out to this Vegasy style. That’s not his style. It would be foolish for Conan to do that.

Jay, like Carson, goes to Vegas and performs. Can you imagine Conan going to Vegas and performing in a hotel? I can’t. I think it’s just not that kind of comedy. They misjudged the whole situation, I think.

JESSE THORN: The last episode of the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien aired in January of 2010. Here’s Conan later that year talking about the whole ordeal on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is Bill Carter; he wrote the book Late Shift, and most recently, The War for Late Night. Both of them chronicle the struggle to attain the hosting duties of the coveted Tonight Show.

So Conan O’Brien has now been doing shows on TBS, and this is a late night world that is dramatically fractured. Does this still work? Is this format something that’s built around the idea of there being a single locus?

BILL CARTER: I think that’s an interesting question going forward, and a lot of people are asking that question; because these big brassy shows, and Conan’s still doing one, by the way, with a huge band and big sets and segment producers and costume departments, etc., those are very expensive shows to do, except in the old days you made so much money it was no problem.

Now, as you said, it’s fractured, there’s too many of them, nobody is getting very big numbers. I think Conan is doing well with the younger audience, he’s going to make a profit if this keeps up. But I think the future is one of two things: either the Jon Stewart model, which is a small studio, a writing staff, and a funny guy, no band, you don’t do any big extraneous acts on that show, he sits behind a desk; or, the other interesting thing to think about is, let’s say Dave or Jay quits, and instead of replacing him at the Tonight Show, you just take the whole late night out, both shows out. Like if they thought Jimmy Fallon was strong enough then, you make him the host of the Tonight Show, you kill the second show and you run him 90 minutes. You go back to the original Carson model, you’ve eliminated one whole staff, all those writers, all the producers, maybe it makes money again. You also obviously cut down on all the guests you have to book, etc. That’s the way it has to go, do one show instead of two.

JESSE THORN: Are we at the point where these shows are not necessarily making money? Having gone from ten years ago making literally hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

BILL CARTER: It’s true, one of the NBC executives, Jeff Gaspin, said to me when I was interviewing him after all of this went down, he said the Conan Tonight Show was going to lose 23 million dollars, is what NBC said. That year. The Conan people protested that, but I said, you brought Jay back; he’s more expensive than Conan is. He said, Oh no, we’ll lose money with Jay too. I said, you’re going to lose money on the Tonight Show? Yes, we may not have a Tonight Show in five years, it’s a money loser. I was staggered by that. As you said, 150 million dollars ten years earlier. It’s just so shrunken and the older guys are not attracting younger people at all now, so the money is just not there. The big time advertising rates are just not there.

The actual idea is so economically sound if you do it right, if you have a limited cost structure that all you need is a big talent behind a desk, you might be able to get away with it. The Regis model, he doesn’t have any writers. He’s just sitting up there winging it, and I think Letterman could do that, by the way. He does that basically from the desk every night. If you have a guy like that, then you’re back to the fact that you have the cheapest possible model. The other bad side of it for these guys is that if they do something really good, you don’t have to watch it, it’s on YouTube the next day. So the compelling nature of the show, where you had to see what’s on Dave tonight, you don’t have to do that anymore. That’s a bad thing for the future, too.

JESSE THORN: Well Bill, thanks so much for taking all this time to be on The Sound of Young America.

BILL CARTER: It was great to talk to you.

JESSE THORN: Bill Carter is the author of the new book, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.

BILL CARTER: There are only a couple of shows now that basically go back to the beginning of television. Today Show and Tonight Show, Meet the Press, shows like that.

JESSE THORN: As The World Turns.

BILL CARTER: That got cancelled. So it really is one of the eternal pillars of television. It’s a uniquely American form; it was invented by American television. Other countries have tried it with not much success, but America has really great comedians that can do this. I think The Tonight Show just became this gold standard of both television programming and comedy. If you were a comedian, that was the show you wanted to break your career on, and if you were good enough you wanted to host it. Obviously when Johnny Carson took over and did it for 30 years it really was raised into the stratosphere as an icon of American entertainment.

JESSE THORN: What was the power of The Tonight Show both over the American public and in the comedy world when it was at its peak in the early-mid 70s?

BILL CARTER: If you were any kind of entertainer you really had to make it on the Tonight Show. If you had your movie opening, if you had your album opening, that was the place to go. For a comedian, you watched Carson and you said, this guy is just masterful. He goes every night on the air, he comments on the national news and obviously he could make and break politicians by how he portrayed them. He had an enormous audience following him; he didn’t seem to have an agenda, so people really followed him, like, well, if he thinks Dan Quayle is an idiot, he’s probably an idiot. That was a big element.

For a young comedian growing up in that era, there was nothing like Carson. He’s on every night. Everyone in America saw it at some point in their lives. He was a guy that everybody saw. So that made him have an enormously powerful position, and one that if you were a comedian you wanted to get not just on the show, but get his sanction. If he decided you were good enough to sit with him that was a big step. If he brought you back, that was another huge step. If he gave his approval, and people would know he gave his approval, that really made your life. I can remember Letterman saying to me when he was first on the show and gave a great spot, and unexpectedly Carson brought him over. It was the highlight of his life. He came out of there feeling like he was on a cloud. He couldn’t believe this had happened to him.

JESSE THORN: How was that changed first by the very public battle between Carson’s chosen successor, Letterman, and NBC’s chosen successor to Carson, Jay Leno, and then the first ten years or so of Leno’s very successful reign as the host of the show?

BILL CARTER: I think what really changed was that Letterman proved, for the first time, that somebody could go to another network and create a real competition. Nobody ever really fully competed with Carson. There were pockets of competition, Dick Cavett and then Arsenio Hall, but nobody really broke through. Then you have this big star that NBC created going to another network and initially beating The Tonight Show. It really changed the equation because they were basically two equal performers. Leno would win in the ratings, but Letterman would win the Emmy every year. The people who were in the comedy world instead of saying, “There’s only one Johnny,” would say, Well, there’s two shows, we kind of like Dave’s show better but the public likes the other guy better. That was the fundamental change, The Tonight Show didn’t stand alone, it wasn’t the only place to go for that kind of thing.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is Bill Carter, he wrote The Late Shift and most recently, The War for Late Night. Both books are about scrambles for the coveted hosting chair of NBC’s The Tonight Show. In 1993, shortly after he lost The Tonight Show to Leno, Letterman departed his late night shift at NBC for The Late Show on CBS which he still hosts today. Late Night on NBC was taken over by a new face, Conan O’Brien.

Six or seven years ago - - I guess it’s a little more than that now, Conan O’Brien had finally established himself as the host of the show that came after The Tonight Show, Late Night. He was a very hot property. Tell me a little bit about what was going on in the minds of NBC when Conan started to emerge while Jay remained a very strong ratings winner.

BILL CARTER: I think one of the things that really motivated NBC was that they didn’t want to repeat what happened with Letterman and Leno. They wanted to figure out a way that they could keep both the stars for as long as possible, and then effect a smooth transition rather than having a fight between these two guys.

You have Conan just emerging, he’s getting on the cover of Rolling Stone, he’s hosting the Emmys, and he’s really making a name for himself with younger viewers. At the same time, Leno was winning easily. They’re facing a problem where if they don’t find a reason for Conan to stay he’s going to be lured away, just like Dave was. In fact, the time was interesting; it came up about eleven years into Conan’s run, which is the time Dave left. So you had the Fox network pursuing him very heavily, and offering him literally three times the salary to go. So NBC faced with that had to come up with some sort of a plan that could give Conan the only thing that would make him stays, which was The Tonight Show. At the same time, not throwing Jay right at the window, instead they came up with this five year plan. The longest transition I’ve ever heard of in television, which usually takes changes in five minutes. But they figured this was the only way to try and keep both guys for the longest possible period of time.

JESSE THORN: Here’s Jay Leno announcing that change on The Tonight Show back in 2004.

Conan O’Brien’s life goal, like a lot of comedians, was to host the Tonight Show. When this plan was presented to him he was willing to accept it because it offered him that.

BILL CARTER: Yes.

JESSE THORN: And also because, as you write in the book, he was very loyal to NBC.

BILL CARTER: He was.

JESSE THORN: Who had given him a chance when he was just a writer for The Simpsons.

BILL CARTER: Right.

JESSE THORN: What about Jay Leno? How was this plan presented to Leno and what did he make of it?

BILL CARTER: It was presented to Leno unexpectedly in a meeting. He thought he was just going to get his contract extended, as it had been extended routinely along this whole period of time. He did not know that NBC had already made the deal with Conan to guarantee him the show, so it was presented to Jay in a way of, well, we’re going to give you one more five year contract, but that’s going to be it and then Conan is going to get the show. I guess the right word for Jay’s reaction was poleaxed. He just felt like he was steamrolled over and felt, as he said, brokenhearted that he was being fired. He thought this was tantamount to saying, yeah, it’s in five years, but at the point you’re fired. Everything about Jay is doing that show and getting ratings and being number one. It was a real shocker, and it hurt him, no question.

JESSE THORN: It seems like Jay Leno is a bit of a get-along kind of guy. Did he protest it at the time?

BILL CARTER: He didn’t protest much. His initial reaction was, well, if that’s what you guys want. And his general demeanor is of a guy who doesn’t want to rock the boat. He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself that much by being aggressive, he doesn’t do that, but that didn’t last. He had seller’s remorse quickly.

JESSE THORN: During this five year period, there was much discussion of whether Leno actually had any interest in stepping down at the end of it, and as Leno started to make little jokes about it on the air and sort of passive-aggressively point out that he was dissatisfied with the situation. It became more and more clear that the top dog in late night TV was going to take his show on the road over to Fox or ABC at the end of that contract. What was going on in the halls of NBC with the people who had made this decision? For one thing, did they actually believe that he was going to quit; and how did they react as it became abundantly clear that he wasn’t?

BILL CARTER: I don’t know if they ever really thought he was going to quit; if they did, they really don’t know this guy. There’s no way you can think Jay Leno was going to quit. He gave me a great line, his mother was born in Scotland, and his line was, I’m Scottish, we die in the mine. That’s his approach. He intends to die on the air. So I don’t think they were convinced he would leave.

I think they thought by the time the five years is up, he will start to fade. He can’t maintain this pace. He’ll be close to 60 and his numbers will start to fade, and so it will be a natural progression, and he’ll do something else for the network. They wanted to have him be the Bob Hope of the network. We’ll have him on every once in a while on the show. But that’s not Jay, Jay has to do everything every day. He’s quite committed to that. When the time started coming and he wasn’t fading, then they had to look at it and ask what are we going to do. If he had gone to ABC, and it would have been ABC, who was very close to getting Jay at that time, he’s probably going to beat Conan because he hasn’t faded at all. Not only is that bad for network ratings, but it’s really bad for me, Jeff Zucker, because I made that decision. He had to figure a way, some way, to try to keep Jay at NBC, and that became his goal in the last year or year and a half, trying to find some offer he could give to him that would make him stay. It certainly wasn’t going to be the Bob Hope thing, every Christmas you do a special, that’s not Jay.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America from maximumfun.org and PRI.

It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse thorn. My guest is Bill Carter; he writes for the New York Times and is the author of both The Late Shift, and most recently, The War for Late Night. Each is the story of a battle to become host of the Tonight Show.

NBC was until just very recently owned by General Electric, and you write in the book about the way that being owned by General Electric affected the decisions that the CEO of NBC, Jeff Zucker, was making. What was their outlook? What was the length of their outlook?

BILL CARTER: They had very short vision because they knew this was a quarter to quarter business. Unfortunately, in television, that’s a really bad way to operate because you have to look ahead and try to buy the next thing that comes down the road.

NBC was failing at a really chronic pace. In regard to how this affected late night, the way they got Conan to agree to this five year waiting period was that they would guarantee him the show with a big penalty; the penalty was 45 or 50 million dollars, if he didn’t get it they’d have to pay him off. There were people at NBC who saw as time went on that Jay was doing really well and thought maybe we should keep him. Why should we give Conan the show, he’s not going to win. If we’re afraid he’s going to go to ABC and beat him, why should we let him go to ABC, we should keep him; let’s pay the penalty. I think Zucker knew that there was no way on earth GE was going to pay that penalty. Going to pay the guy 50 million dollars to go away for nothing? We’re going to pay that kind of money when we’re counting pencils? It wasn’t going to square. Again, that made him figure that my only alternative is to keep Jay somehow.

JESSE THORN: It seems like every decision that you chronicle that NBC makes over the course of this ten year story is defensive one.

BILL CARTER: Yeah.

JESSE THORN: That’s about avoiding something that they don’t like rather than doing something that they do like.

BILL CARTER: Exactly, that’s exactly the point. They never could make a choice. If they could have stepped back and said, here is what our choice is: We think Conan is the future; whatever happens with Jay, it’s too bad, but that’s it. That’s our choice. Or, we don’t know about Conan. If he goes to Fox, he goes to Fox, we have Jay, let’s stick with him. They just couldn’t do that, they kept trying to figure out a way to keep pushing the can down the road, hoping the circumstances would change, and then whatever happened would become clear. That’s why, in five years, Jay’s bound to fade, so that makes sense. But he didn’t. And then you have to protect that decision. We made that decision, so what are we going to do to protect that. It kept escalating on them.

JESSE THORN: Did they sincerely believe, and one can see from the book that while there’s not a huge amount of direct quotes, I can see that you spoke with a variety of levels of executives that worked on this problem at NBC.

BILL CARTER: Yes.

JESSE THORN: Did they think that any of these solutions were solutions?

BILL CARTER: Yeah. I think they believed that when they finally came up with this plan to put Jay at ten o’clock, that that would serve two purposes: that would keep Jay, it means he wouldn’t go against Conan, they’d be okay with Conan on the Tonight Show; and, their ten o’clock hour, which was failing anyway because they didn’t have money to put on good shows, they could put ton a cheaper show that would be relatively competitive because of the whole shrinking universe of television in general. They could therefore save money, keep both guys, and it would look like some brilliant master stroke.

JESSE THORN: And then the Jay Leno Show turned out to be horrible.

BILL CARTER: That was something they also should have anticipated. I’m not trying to pick on Jay, because what they were asking Jay to do was literally impossible for any comedian, but particularly for Jay. He doesn’t do this kind of thing. They didn’t want to call it a variety show; they didn’t want to make it a variety show. So instead they were going to make it a comedy show. Five nights a week, an hour long comedy show, who has ever done that? Nobody has ever done that. In primetime? Impossible.

JESSE THORN: If a sitcom has ten writers to make a half an hour a week, you’d need a staff of 200 to make that volume of comedy.

BILL CARTER: Exactly. And they were trying to stay away from the Tonight Show format to not totally preempt Conan. So they couldn’t fill it up with interviews back to back, so in the second act they’re trying to fill it up with newcomer performers who the producer of the show knew they would never put on The Tonight Show, and they’re in primetime now. So they built in failure to the show. It took years for Jay to figure out these departments that could make the second act work. Now he’s going to fill more time? It just made no sense. They’re driving cars around the parking lot, they’re having these pseudo-interviews on satellite that are supposed to be funny; it really was a train wreck. It was quickly apparent to the station that they couldn’t tolerate it. Quickly.

JESSE THORN: After some months of Leno’s primetime show struggling, and Conan’s Tonight Show not delivering in ratings either, NBC approached Conan asking that The Tonight Show be pushed back to 12:05, just after midnight, to allow Leno to proceed him for a half an hour. Conan didn’t agree to the change, and the conflict played out in the press, and even in the shows nightly monologues. Here’s a clip from one of the last Tonight Show’s with Conan O’Brien. You can also hear past Sound of Young America guest Andy Richter in this clip, he’s Conan’s long time sidekick.

I want to play this clip of what you describe Jimmy Kimmel as having recognized a TV moment, which is Jimmy Kimmel doing this frankly kind of awful segment on the Jay Leno show called Ten at Ten, which Jay Leno’s writers wrote B-minus jokes for C-minus celebrities, generally. Let’s hear a little bit of this.

BILL CARTER: Okay.

JESSE THORN: Do you think that NBC had an understanding of what this situation meant in the context of comedy? In the context of people who were doing creative work in the world of comedy; people like Jimmy Kimmel, whose first car had a license plate that said Late Night on it.

BILL CARTER: If you’re asking if they had a concept of the comedy value, the answer is a big fat no. They never think that way. They never thought to themselves, who’s the best host for The Tonight Show? If they thought that way from the beginning they would have kept Letterman. They would have said, who’s the better artist? We’re going to hire that guy.

There’s another part in the book where Jeff Garlin, a friend of Conan, said comedy fans like Conan, and people who just watch comedy watch Jay. He compared it to Kenny G and John Coltrane. Kenny G sold way more albums, but nobody thinks he’s better than John Coltrane. You know who does? NBC would, because he sold more albums. They would think that, that is the business they’re in. It didn’t matter to them that Dave was funny or Dave was going to be a problem, Jay wasn’t. Jay wouldn’t be malleable; he’d go to the affiliates, that made more sense to them. In the long run, they were probably right, that was right. He’s a broader guy. What they were wrong about was that they thought Conan could broaden out to this Vegasy style. That’s not his style. It would be foolish for Conan to do that.

Jay, like Carson, goes to Vegas and performs. Can you imagine Conan going to Vegas and performing in a hotel? I can’t. I think it’s just not that kind of comedy. They misjudged the whole situation, I think.

JESSE THORN: The last episode of the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien aired in January of 2010. Here’s Conan later that year talking about the whole ordeal on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is Bill Carter; he wrote the book Late Shift, and most recently, The War for Late Night. Both of them chronicle the struggle to attain the hosting duties of the coveted Tonight Show.

So Conan O’Brien has now been doing shows on TBS, and this is a late night world that is dramatically fractured. Does this still work? Is this format something that’s built around the idea of there being a single locus?

BILL CARTER: I think that’s an interesting question going forward, and a lot of people are asking that question; because these big brassy shows, and Conan’s still doing one, by the way, with a huge band and big sets and segment producers and costume departments, etc., those are very expensive shows to do, except in the old days you made so much money it was no problem.

Now, as you said, it’s fractured, there’s too many of them, nobody is getting very big numbers. I think Conan is doing well with the younger audience, he’s going to make a profit if this keeps up. But I think the future is one of two things: either the Jon Stewart model, which is a small studio, a writing staff, and a funny guy, no band, you don’t do any big extraneous acts on that show, he sits behind a desk; or, the other interesting thing to think about is, let’s say Dave or Jay quits, and instead of replacing him at the Tonight Show, you just take the whole late night out, both shows out. Like if they thought Jimmy Fallon was strong enough then, you make him the host of the Tonight Show, you kill the second show and you run him 90 minutes. You go back to the original Carson model, you’ve eliminated one whole staff, all those writers, all the producers, maybe it makes money again. You also obviously cut down on all the guests you have to book, etc. That’s the way it has to go, do one show instead of two.

JESSE THORN: Are we at the point where these shows are not necessarily making money? Having gone from ten years ago making literally hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

BILL CARTER: It’s true, one of the NBC executives, Jeff Gaspin, said to me when I was interviewing him after all of this went down, he said the Conan Tonight Show was going to lose 23 million dollars, is what NBC said. That year. The Conan people protested that, but I said, you brought Jay back; he’s more expensive than Conan is. He said, Oh no, we’ll lose money with Jay too. I said, you’re going to lose money on the Tonight Show? Yes, we may not have a Tonight Show in five years, it’s a money loser. I was staggered by that. As you said, 150 million dollars ten years earlier. It’s just so shrunken and the older guys are not attracting younger people at all now, so the money is just not there. The big time advertising rates are just not there.

The actual idea is so economically sound if you do it right, if you have a limited cost structure that all you need is a big talent behind a desk, you might be able to get away with it. The Regis model, he doesn’t have any writers. He’s just sitting up there winging it, and I think Letterman could do that, by the way. He does that basically from the desk every night. If you have a guy like that, then you’re back to the fact that you have the cheapest possible model. The other bad side of it for these guys is that if they do something really good, you don’t have to watch it, it’s on YouTube the next day. So the compelling nature of the show, where you had to see what’s on Dave tonight, you don’t have to do that anymore. That’s a bad thing for the future, too.

JESSE THORN: Well Bill, thanks so much for taking all this time to be on The Sound of Young America.

BILL CARTER: It was great to talk to you.

JESSE THORN: Bill Carter is the author of the new book, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.

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