Table of Contents
ALSO BY BILL CARTER
The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2010 by Viking Penguin,
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Copyright © Bill Carter, 2010
All rights reserved
Page 406 constitutes an extension of this copyright page.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Carter, Bill, date.
The war for late night : when Leno went early and television went crazy / Bill Carter.
eISBN : 978-1-101-44342-2
1. Tonight show (Television program) 2. Television talk shows—United States—
History—21st century. 3. Leno, Jay. I. Title.
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For all the Carters and everyone else who shared the love at Fourth Street and Breezy—and especially in memory of Mom (Grams), who served it up to all of us in such abundance
y eight thirty on the evening of May 19, 2009, a stream of cabs and limos was snaking slowly down West Forty-third Street, pulling up one by one to the doors of the venerable, somewhat shabby Town Hall. The theater was a fabled Broadway-district house, and everyone from Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff to Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan had played there long ago to sold-out audiences. The newly dark sky over Manhattan was clear but the temperature cool for a mid-May evening—only fifty-seven degrees.
The arriving crowd didn’t want to linger in the night air anyway, preferring to get inside as quickly as possible, if only to avoid the haranguing voices from members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, who were arrayed in force across the street in an effort to shame the management of their employer, NBC, into offering them a new contract.
Most of the milling guests were specifically in the city on this night because it was the middle of “upfront week”—a long-standing television industry rite of spring during which the broadcast networks trot out their newly selected programs for the fall in hopes of luring cash commitments from advertisers. The gathering swarm outside the theater, arriving in packs of five and six, was mostly under thirty-five and was much better dressed and significantly whiter than the average American population. If they barely paid attention to the noise of the demonstration—or the large inflated rat looming over the proceedings—it was because they had no vested interest in the protesters’ cause. Largely buyers from ad agencies, honchos from the big Hollywood production studios, or executives from NBC’s affiliated television stations—the broadcast stations owned by other companies that carried NBC’s programs—they had turned up at Town Hall to see a night of entertainment—and to get a first look at what NBC had been telling the world was the “new paradigm” for the television industry:
Jay Leno at ten o’clock.
The network had put together the event on short notice, announcing it only a month earlier as NBC’s Comedy Showcase—a night devoted to the great tradition of NBC comedy, as exemplified by shows like
Saturday Night Live
. In truth, it was all about grabbing some attention during upfront week for what Alan Wurtzel, the head of research for NBC, had labeled “clearly the highest priority for the network” going into the fall television season: the new, five-night-a-week
Jay Leno Show
The evening was built around an appearance by Jay, the perennial late-night leader, now in his final weeks as host of
The Tonight Show
, doing his thing: classic, joke-intensive stand-up. The organizers had blocked it out so that Leno would walk out onstage precisely at ten p.m.—his symbolic debut at that hour.
The time element was one reason the evening’s show was set to start relatively late—nine p.m.—for a Broadway performance. The other was NBC’s belated entry into upfront week. The network was actually squeezing itself into a day that was technically the property of ABC, and it had to be sure to allow enough time for its advertising clients to take in the ABC presentation, which started at four, and get a little dinner before heading back to midtown for some laughs. (NBC also had to assuage any fears at ABC that it was going to pull people away from its competitor’s event.)
According to the long-established pecking order of upfront week, Tuesday was slated for ABC’s presentation, which was routinely staged at Lincoln Center uptown. CBS owned Wednesday, with Carnegie Hall the somewhat incongruously grand setting. Fox, the newest of the networks, was usually relegated to Thursday and whatever venue that network could scrounge up. In recent years, Fox had turned to the less than ideal City Center after some infelicitous, though memorable, forays to other locations—such as the flight deck of the aircraft carrier
(hard to get to, hard to navigate around, and hard to hear anything inside the cavernous tent that Fox had erected) and the 69th Regiment Armory, which had established a new low for upfronts in 2006 by being hothouse humid, leaky roofed (it was teeming outside) and redolent of urine. (On top of that, one Fox executive had turned up onstage so drunk that he couldn’t pronounce the word “Tostitos.”)
Monday, by tradition, belonged to NBC, which had the supreme advantage of having its 30 Rock headquarters located right across Fiftieth Street from the pinnacle of Manhattan showbiz arenas, Radio City Music Hall. But the hall went vacant that year because NBC had abdicated its leadoff position in the upfront lineup. That allowed Fox to grab Monday for itself and thereby make a statement: The network was taking its bows first, a post it could legitimately claim it deserved, having clawed its way to the top in the ratings competition that counted most in the TV business—the battle for eyeballs owned by viewers between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine.
In truth, NBC had abandoned the field a year before, when, in another declaration of paradigm upheaval, it had pronounced the upfront era dead, with much the same revolutionary zeal it had when it introduced an even earlier paradigm-buster called TV 2.0, which posited that the eight p.m. hour was no longer a place for high-priced scripted comedies and dramas but should ideally be filled only with low-cost reality fare. As had been the case with the TV 2.0 plan—which had faded quickly into television press-release history—the decision to kill off the upfronts was less a matter of paradigms than piles of dimes. Jeff Zucker, NBC’s chief executive, who announced each successive paradigm shift with the same resolute fervor, had targeted the upfront as a financially extravagant relic of a past era when broadcasters were flush with cash, and no longer relevant at a time when networks were squeezing program budgets for pennies and slashing staffs with broadswords. (NBC was only six months removed from an announcement of five hundred layoffs.)
It was in December 2007, in the midst of a disruptive writers’ strike, that Zucker had pulled the plug on the traditional upfront, “in light of the current business environment,” as he put it. He dismissed the elaborate presentations—which usually featured stars walking out onstage and making inane scripted comments about shows they knew little about because they had only acted in a pilot by that point—as a chore and a bore that induced people to show up only because of the lavish parties that followed them. “It’s a show that everyone wants over as soon as possible,” Zucker proclaimed. “People always say: Can’t we get to the party sooner?”
NBC, a network that had once taken in as much as $800 million a year in profits, was now exsanguinating red ink after years of disastrous prime-time ratings. Under the increasingly green eye-shaded vision of its corporate managers at General Electric, it had done away with both the presentation and the profligate party in 2008, initiating instead something it cutely labeled the “infront.” This consisted of a scaled-down series of presentations to ad buyers—with no fancy after-party. Advertisers would get a chance to offer their own input after an earlier-than-usual look at NBC’s proposed shows, though many would be based only on scripts or sketchy outlines, because NBC also wanted to cut out expensive pilots.