When beloved host Johnny Carson announced his retirement after thirty years on The Tonight Show, millions of Americans mourned. But inside the television industry, the news ignited a battle between two amazing talents—Jay Leno and David Letterman—who both yearned to occupy the departing legend’s chair. For NBC, it would be a decision with millions of dollars at stake. Soon these two comedians with strikingly different styles, who had once shared a friendship as they worked the clubs together, would be engaged in a fierce competition for the prize.
Based on in-depth reporting and interviews with those involved, and updated with a new introduction by the author, The Late Shift is a “vivid, behind-the-scenes, blow-by-blow account” of the fight that ensued, as stars, agents, and executives maneuvered for control of the most profitable program in TV history (Chicago Tribune).
“Remarkably gripping . . . Takes us deep into the bizarre high-stakes world of broadcasting . . . A powerful story, and ultimately a sad one, filled with casualties as well as winners.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Solid reporting, based on extensive interviews with the principals, lifts The Late Shift into a class of its own. . . . The insights into the people involved are what make [the book] a page-turner.” —Orange Country Register
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NO MORE TO COME
Tucked behind a podium on the far left of the deep, elegant stage of Carnegie Hall, Warren Littlefield was finishing up his debut as maestro of NBC's entertainment programming. It was May 23, 1991, a sparkling spring afternoon in Manhattan. In front of a full-house audience of advertising agency executives and station managers from NBC's affiliated stations, Littlefield was bringing onto the stage the full roster of NBC stars — Ted Danson, Jane Pauley, Bill Cosby — trying to complete with a flourish his first presentation of the upcoming fall television schedule.
NBC's ratings fortunes had, in the previous television season, started a steep plunge after six years of dominating prime time. (Or, as Preston Beckman, an NBC research executive, described it: "Our ratings took a bungee jump off the Empire Stare Building.") Now NBC's executives had assembled their most important constituencies in the grandeur of Carnegie Hall and, in an effort to impress, they were reaching for rabbits from every conceivable form of headwear.
More than two hours earlier, the session had started with a rambling satellite interview between NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and President George Bush, who, a year prior to the start of a new presidential election season, was pressing a little flesh electronically with the managers of local television stations. This group was one of growing importance to politicians seeking access to local newscasts. Littlefield, at that point pacing off-stage, found the interview interminable and unfathomable. He relished the chance to introduce the next act: Jay Leno, permanent guest host of the "Tonight" show, who in the last several years had polished his reputation as the best backup to Johnny Carson NBC had ever had on its "Tonight" show depth chart. Leno came out and did ten minutes of crackerjack stand-up.
Danson did a warmly received walk-on, minus his hairpiece, which few in the crowd seemed to notice. And Cosby, NBC's leading man since the mid-eighties, turned up to voice his appreciation for all the support his "Cosby Show" had received, helping make him a millionaire another couple of hundred times over.
Littlefield had the stage to himself as he introduced these stars and others from the new shows he had picked for NBC's fall schedule, shows like "Eerie, Indiana," "Pacific Station," and "Man of the People," all of which were being celebrated as the new wave from the House of Hits.
As the long ceremony wound down toward its close, it was a moment of some triumph for the thirty-nine-year-old Littlefield, one he had been aiming for all his professional life; not because he had ever longed to walk out into the spotlight at Carnegie Hall, but because he had waited a decade to walk out from under the tall shadow of Brandon Tartikoff. Tartikoff, who had been named chairman of Paramount Pictures a month earlier, had led NBC's charge from doormat to king of the prime-time hill in the mid-eighties, piling up annual profits of up to $500 million for the network. Along the way Tartikoff had charmed the powers of Hollywood — and even more importantly the press — to carve for himself a legend as the premier showman of the living-room box.
Littlefield, shorter, redder-faced, with a neatly trimmed, carrot-colored beard and a taste for conspicuously colorful ties, had been Tartikoff's principal lieutenant, standing like the dutiful little brother at Tartikoff's side at previous fall season presentations. What had once been a close relationship had grown fractious toward the end, with the two men often disagreeing on program and casting choices. At one Hollywood party, Tartikoff was overheard calling Littlefield and another NBC programming executive, Perry Simon, the "Milli Vanilli of programming," after the singing duo who were exposed for lip-synching songs sung by other people. Littlefield, who had always had a vulnerability and sweetness about him, tried to shrug the insult off, saying, "Brothers fight, and brothers at times want to inflict a punch that hurts."
Fearing his big show had drifted on too long and that he might soon lose a large part of his audience to long-delayed trips to the restroom, Littlefield urged a final round of applause for the whole "NBC family of stars" he had introduced that afternoon. He promised a "final special visitor from the West" as the last celebrity member of the NBC prime-time family exited the stage.
"I've waited my whole life for this," Littlefield said, revving up his thin, somewhat high-pitched voice: "Ladies and gentlemen, the king of late-night television, soon to begin his thirtieth season on NBC here's Johnny!" The theme song, "Da-Dat-Dat-DADA," as familiar to anyone who owned a television set as the National Anthem was to anyone who'd gone to a ball-game, rose to match the applause. Johnny Carson strode in his elegant, stiff-legged style to center stage. The audience kept up the applause, rolling it toward the stage in waves, as though trying to embrace him in warmth and enthusiasm. They were genuinely surprised; Carson's appearance had been totally unbilled and effectively kept from the press by the few NBC executives who'd planned it.
As much as American television audiences had come to love Carson, the managers of NBC's television stations had several million stronger reasons for their ardor. Almost thirty years into his nightly role as the nation's chief cultural color commentator, Carson was the single biggest money generator in television history. He was also the greatest individual star the medium had ever created.
Carson smiled broadly as he drank in the applause, touched by its evident sincerity. "Thank you very much," he said. "That's very nice of you and I'm very grateful." And then after a perfectly timed pause: "Gee, what a fast-paced afternoon!" As the huge laugh was just dying down, Carson stretched it: "You folks must be just short of a coma."
And he was off and running, tossing off quick-hit jokes about Ivana Trump, the cheapness of NBC's corporate parent General Electric, even the afternoon's host: "You get a little awestruck being on this stage, to think of all the great men who have graced this stage at Carnegie Hall: Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern, and today (pause) Warren Littlefield." He tacked on a rebound laugh with: "Kind of knocks hell out of Darwin's theory, doesn't it?"
Then he shifted to Jay Leno, the latest in a seemingly unending line of presumed successors. "Jay Leno kept driving me nuts backstage, coming up every few minutes: 'How you feeling? Feel okay? How's your thyroid? Your thyroid okay?' I like Jay Leno, and as a matter of fact, he is very concerned about my health. In fact, he insisted that I jog through Central Park about midnight tonight."
Leno didn't hear the cracks. He was long gone, having bolted the theater immediately after his own standup spot to grab a limo to the airport. There, a private plane commissioned by NBC would take him back to Lake Tahoe and the gig at the hotel he had interrupted to open the NBC festivities. As Johnny was speaking, Jay was already somewhere over Pennsylvania, working, as always, on more jokes.
Carson's next target was also absent: Brandon Tartikoff, the NBC entertainment executive Carson had come to like best and respect most. "I love Brandon Tartikoff," Carson said. "He talked me into staying and then he jumped ship."
For some who knew Carson well, the last statement didn't sound entirely like a joke. They believed that Carson felt somewhat abandoned when Tartikoff decided to leave NBC for Paramount, though Johnny himself never said that was the case. But with Tartikoff gone, Carson was sharing his Burbank headquarters with a group of executives that he was not nearly as close to.
Carson did have some reason to be disenchanted with NBC: The network had seen fit, for the first time in his run as sovereign of late night, to challenge his hard-earned prerogatives. The previous February, during the Persian Gulf war, NBC had responded to its stations' requests for more local news time by pushing the starting time for the "Tonight" show back five minutes, to 11:35 P.M. in the East. It was a convenient excuse for the stations to start squeezing more commercials into their newscasts.
NBC could have fought the stations to hold the line at 11:30, but the network didn't want to take the risk. NBC's executives believed the move to 11:35 was necessary to maintain the loyalty of the stations to the "Tonight" show. With syndicated shows like "Entertainment Tonight" and reruns of "Cheers" churning out big profits for non-NBC stations in the late-night time period, it was becoming increasingly difficult for NBC to hold together the lineup of stations that provided full national clearance for the show. That 100 percent clearance rate was the backbone of the "Tonight" show's dominance of late night.
NBC had been under pressure for some time from stations that wanted to delay the start of "Tonight" until midnight so they could plug in one of those syndicated shows. The syndicated programs were enticing for a couple of reasons: The stations got to sell all the time in those shows, while NBC gave them only half the commercial minutes in the "Tonight" show; and the stations had noticed that the audience for Carson was starting to gray along with the star.
That was a potentially fatal trend. The television business had become so youth-oriented that viewers over the age of fifty were all but worthless. Advertisers bought commercial time almost exclusively on the basis of the demographic makeup of the audience. A show needed good young "demos" to make big profits because advertisers had concluded that only young customers were likely to switch brands. Carson still had the biggest audience in late night, but the game had changed: The point was no longer to have a big audience, but to have the right audience.
NBC's entertainment executives had been nervously eyeing Johnny's demos for several years. The Gulf war provided a somewhat graceful way to take a little piece out of Johnny to placate the station managers, who were starting to wonder what sort of young female demos they could get with "Love Connection" at 11:30.
As Carson saw it, the stations were simply eating up the first five minutes of his access to the public, and he didn't like it. It was certainly a slap in the face to Carson, who had always resisted every network effort to tamper with his show. If it had happened earlier in his career, Carson would have threatened to quit and stopped this encroachment dead in its tracks. He understood the television business as well as any executive who had ever worked in it. He knew you could never permit the stations to start nibbling at your show, because the next year they might decide they'd like to nibble you back to an 11:45 start. And after that it would be an easy jump to dropping in a rerun of a sitcom at 11:30, pushing the "Tonight" show back to midnight. Carson would never have allowed himself to be nibbled to death that way if he hadn't concluded his time on the show was growing short anyway. That made the threat to quit a bit pointless. So Johnny decided not to bother; though he let NBC know it surely didn't make him happy.
But Carson had not come to New York to win back his five minutes; he was there to deliver a special monologue, and a special message. And he had more jokes to attend to before he got down to business.
He took a few shots at Paramount, then more at GE for not having a clue about the entertainment business. He noted all the pregnancies at the "Today" show and suggested that even Willard Scott had morning sickness.
Then, without breaking his comic rhythm, he shifted gears. "We've been doing this show many, many years. I've had a few problems. I've never talked about them on the air, but since this is my last year, I might let you in on a few things that have happened."
He had dropped the line in so smoothly, so seamlessly, that it stirred not even a ripple of reaction in the big audience — except down in the front row, where the NBC executives sat. There quizzical looks fogged over a few of the faces. To Betty Hudson, the head of corporate public relations, it was like a faint buzzing in the ear that you couldn't quite identify.
Johnny was onto stories about advertisers he'd offended over the years: the Sara Lee bakery, with his suggestion on the air one night that Sara was actually a "little hooker from Cleveland who made those cookies on the side." Later he learned from the president of the company that Sara Lee had been named after the man's daughter.
Carson was most amused by the reaction of Forest Lawn, the famed Hollywood final resting place, to his comment about their $39.95 funeral: "They take you our, stand you on tippy toes, and drive you into the ground with a croquet mallet. You don't even get a headstone. They just leave your hand up, holding your Diners Club card." The call the next day from the director of Forest Lawn was delivered in an especially otherworldly voice. "Mr. Carson: We shall have the last laugh."
That drew Johnny's biggest laugh of the day. He might have stopped there and saved the row of NBC executives from further squirming, but the responsive crowd and the setting and the emotion of the moment seemed to be making him nostalgic. So Carson rolled amiably on, reminiscing about the seven presidential administrations he'd made fun of, reserving some special thanks that Dan Quayle had come along to provide so much monologue material. Then he recalled a recent bit he'd done on the show about "least-uttered expressions in the English language," including: "That's the banjo player's Porsche," and "Oh, you're a Jehovah's Witness. Come on in!"
The audience was totally his now. Every line went off like a fireworks shell. Finally he came around to his point:
"I know you've had a long afternoon, and I would like to say for one thing here, as you well know, this is the last year that I am doing the 'Tonight' show, and it's been a long, marvelous run."
Now the rumble rolled through the audience, not a single member of which knew that this was supposed to be Johnny Carson's last year on the air. Heads began to turn, one to the other, in the row of NBC executives. Just offstage, Warren Littlefield could suddenly feel his shirt sticking to his back.
Backstage, Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports and a longtime friend of Carson's, heard the words and remembered that Johnny, sitting around a table with Ebersol, Danson, and Cosby a while earlier, had said something about going out and telling them all he was leaving soon. Ebersol had no idea he'd meant that soon.
John Agoglia, the executive vice president of NBC and the man who conducted every major talent negotiation for the network, sat up and leaned forward in his chair.
Carson went on: "Brandon came to me as he has for the last ten years, and we had our annual talk."
The murmur in the audience started to spread.
"He wanted me to go into the thirtieth year, and I said I would be delighted. I said, 'Can we make it a year from now?' — meaning this month of May."
Carson had quietly been leaning toward his thirty-year anniversary in October 1992 as a logical endpoint. But he knew that NBC would be preempting the show for its late-night coverage of the Barcelona Olympics for two weeks in July 1992 anyway. Viewing levels were always down in summer as well, and it was always hardest to book guests in the summer months. He always considered June, July, and August the show's dog days. So he simply looked backward on the calendar and realized May was the next closest "sweep" month, a special ratings period of most importance to the local stations — and thus to the networks as well. And if he stepped down in May, he could relax the rest of the summer and take his wife, Alex, to the French Open and Wimbledon.
The full meaning of what was happening was sinking into the intently listening NBC executives: The king was about to abdicate.
"And so we're going to go into next May," Carson said, "and my last show is going to be May 22, 1992."
Agoglia's face went totally white. He saw the head of Bob Wright, his boss, the president of NBC, jerk around to look at him. Wright had become a good friend of Carson's; they'd scheduled a dinner together that night. Yet Carson had said nothing before about this. All Agoglia could do was shake his head at Wright and look as surprised as everyone else.
This wasn't in the script. Agoglia had been at that same luncheon meeting with Tartikoff, Carson, and Carson's agent, Ed Hookstratten. As always it had been at the Grill restaurant in Beverly Hills. For some time Carson had been working year to year, making his own call every time about whether he wanted to go on with the show. NBC actually sold the show to advertisers on a two-year basis, so Carson was technically signed for two years. But that was just a paper clause. He had an option every year if he wanted to get out.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Late Shift"
Copyright © 2019 Bill Carter.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsIntroduction
1 NO MORE TO COME
2 THE EMPIRE OF THE NIGHT
3 THE CAMPAIGN
4 STUPID NETWORK TRICKS
5 BRIDGES BURNED
6 GOOD COP, BAD COP
7 PSYCHOLOGY 101
8 THIS IS … CBS
9 THE EAST/WEST GAME
10 CHOOSE YOUR PARTNERS
11 THE SECOND FRONT
12 CLASH BY NIGHT
13 WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY?
POSTSCRIPT: SHOWDOWN IN MIDTOWN