Book Review: The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy (Bill Carter)

In Uncategorized on February 15, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Let me start by saying I find neither Leno nor Conan especially funny or entertaining. I really did not care who ended up in the Tonight Show chair. What I do find entertaining is the behind the scenes stories of how television shows and movies make it to the screen. I devour these kinds of books (and am always open to suggestion is anyone out there has a favorite in this genre).

The War For Late Night is a no holds barred look at inept follies of NBC in dealing with The Tonight Show. If you think this situation came about quickly, you would be wrong. The book traces the roots of the disaster all the way back to the beginning, which is 2001 when Conan initially turned downed FOX to be their new late night host. (FOX eventually went with Chevy Chase, and we all know how that turned out).

The author is completely unbiased in his assessment of the whole situation. He lays bare both the good and bad sides of Conan and Leno, which was refreshing given the almost saintly treatment the Conan fanboys have bestowed upon him. If you are in Team Coco’s camp, you will not like this book, because it actually exposes the truth behind some of the mistakes he made throughout the whole process.

The book also does a good job of showing the mistakes of Leno, in a fact based way, as opposed to the vilification he endured in the press while the switch happened. The author clearly shows how in the end, both Conan and Leno made the best business decision for themselves and their staffs. He does not put Conan in the God-like nature most of the Conan fans do, and also steers clear of painting Leno as the mean spirited, egomaniac.

Instead, the author clearly lays the blame for the fiasco exactly where is belong: at the feet of NBC management, specifically Jeff Zucker. It is clear that every step in this disaster was orchestrated by Zucker, going all the way back to 2004 by promising Conan the Late Night chair in 5 years even with Leno miles ahead of any other late night competition.

The best thing about this book is that it takes emotion and conjecture totally out of the process. Everything here is the facts, not opinion. It delves into the contracts of both the major players, and links that contracts to all the minor players in late night (including John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Letterman, Kimmel and Handler). The author helps connects the dots to all these players, and shows how each of them is a piece of the puzzle to understand what happened in Leno’s move to 10:00pm.

This is not a book is you looking for celebrity gossip. This is a book about the business side of the industry and how early decisions can snowball into mind boggling results.

A very strong 4.5 out of 5 and highly recommended for anyone who is interested in the entertainment industry.


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