The brouhaha the past 18 months over NBC’s late-night shenanigans doesn’t mean much in a country roiling over a lack of jobs and structural economic problems.
But for decades, late night comedy has been an ointment, a comfy blanket we fall asleep under with a chuckle or a smile. Johnny Carson. David Letterman. Jay Leno. Conan O’Brien. It’s a pantheon of greats and a profitable alcove for NBC, generating billions in profits over the past half century. It also makes for great soap opera.
Sixteen years ago, New York Times reporter Bill Carter garnered a huge best-seller chronicling the messy Carson-Letterman-Leno transition in 1992-93 with “The Late Shift.” He managed to keep it both gripping and balanced.
Now Carter is back to follow the latest twists and turns in what is a much broader late-night landscape that includes Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, Chelsea Handler, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Oh, and Conan, too, now on Atlanta-based TBS.
It’s a fascinating 400-page read as NBC’s Jeff Zucker tries multiple tactics to keep both Leno and O’Brien under his wing while attempting to avoid the mess of 1992. The 2004 idea: give O’Brien the “Tonight Show” seat — in five years. The tidbit he got that wasn’t known until now is how O’Brien and NBC kept the news under wraps for six months. O’Brien’s camp dissembled in the interim about staying or going. Carter also said he didn’t realize how Leno was truly “wrecked” by NBC’s move because on the surface, he acted very cordially in public about it.
The tactic, in one sense, worked. Zucker kept both Leno and O’Brien at NBC for five more years, helping the network continue to print money at night. In fact, Leno was still No. 1 in 2009 so NBC feared he’d go to ABC if they let him go. So they offered him a 10 p.m slot, a move that disrupted NBC’s prime-time lineup and caused a fury from affiliates as 11 p.m. news ratings cratered in many markets (though in Atlanta, WXIA managed to hold its own.)
The book notes how NBC managed to keep the affiliate revolt under wraps as it sought another make-shift solution. (Carter was amazed how quickly the affiliates turned on Leno.) The one they chose: move Leno back to 11:35 p.m. but only for a half hour and push Conan’s “Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m. Conan refused and wrote a manifesto that helped turn him into a public folk hero. Conan was indeed devastated by NBC’s actions but walked away with $32 million and another $13 million for his staff.
Fox considered him but despite the fact programmers liked him, they decided it wasn’t worth the friction with affiliates to place him at 11 p.m. TBS, aware that things didn’t appear to be advancing for Conan over at Fox, interceded with its grand plans and wooed Conan with ownership and star billing on the network. Conan took a pay cut and began his show began airing on TBS last week. Ratings started strong but have slipped quickly. (He opened at 4.3 million last Monday and was at 1.8 million by this past Monday.) It’s hard to say where his numbers will settle.
“The competition is ferocious,” Carter said in an interview earlier this week. Both Leno and Letterman have been very aggressive with bookings. And Stewart and Colbert are hot after that “Restore Sanity” rally in D.C.
Carter was impressed by how young the audience is on “Conan.” So far, his median viewer is a mere 32 years old, down from 45 on “The Tonight Show.” Advertisers should love that. He also thinks Conan’s primary competitor at 11 p.m. is Stewart.
“I think he’s back to being himself more or less,” Carter said. “He was very liberated and very energized” his first week. He felt Conan was “off his stride” on the “Tonight Show.”
Carter’s book came out just in time for Conan’s bow. That left him with very little time to actually write the book.
“I started writing in June and had to have it done by August 31,” he said. He added a few graphs in late September after Zucker stepped down on the final page. “I actually insisted on getting this out fast. Things on television change really really fast. You can’t really sit on the sidelines.”
Conan’s people were skeptical about TBS at first, which was understandable how little of an image TBS even had beyond the home to Tyler Perry and lots of repeats of sitcoms. They didn’t even know what channel TBS was on in Los Angeles.
Carter got all major players to talk to him, a testament to his journalistic abilities and even-handedness. And he said in virtually every case, stories were substantiated by both parties. Only twice did he feel the renditions from two sides were so different, he had to finesse his writing.
The most interesting comment Conan made after NBC told him he needed to move to 12:05 a.m. was his plaintive “What does Jay have on you?” “His long submerged feelings of why he’s in second place to Jay came flowing out,” Carter said. “That was really dramatic.”
Carter thinks Leno has been permanently damaged and his weaker numbers since he has returned reflect that. “This was a winner for 16 years who went into prime time and flopped,” he said. “He carried some scars away from that.” He also finds the generational divide between Leno’s Baby Boomer fans and Conan’s younger fans fascinating. “It’s hard to find anyone in college to say anything good about Jay,” Carter said.
He said it’s clear Conan perceived the move to basic cable a step down. But in Carter’s mind (and in the eyes of most anybody under the age of 30), the differentiation between cable and broadcast is not a difference at all.
“He certainly has an opportunity to stay on the air and do good work,” Carter said. “He doesn’t have to worry about affiliates. And the network loves him. The only downside is if he consistently or always finishes behind Jon Stewart.”
Carter also found no evidence of George Lopez being unhappy moving from 11 p.m. to midnight. “I detected absolutely no resistance.”
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog