Saga of late-night TV war comes in fuzzy

February 07, 1994|By Chris Stoehr | Chris Stoehr,Contributing Writer

"The Late Shift" tells a story of greed, stupidity, ambition and childishness. For those reasons alone, it ought to become a best seller.

It is the narrative of what was perhaps show business' messiest divorce: David Letterman's estrangement from NBC, his wooing by CBS and the millions involved in the settlement.

Viewers saw some of those battles in the marital war enacted nightly on their sets, in the form of Letterman jokes about NBC's "pinhead" executives on his NBC show, "Late Night with David Letterman." They saw Jay Leno make his own jokes about NBC contracts on his show, "The Tonight Show." Who would the network choose to take over Johnny Carson's late-night throne? Wait a minute. Hadn't it already chosen Jay Leno? Hadn't he been on for a year now? What's wrong with this picture?

It was a family feud that made those of Ivana and the Donald, and Loni and Burt, seem restrained in comparison. Played out for over a year and a half and on the front page of most daily newspapers, it was a divorce the whole family could enjoy.

Bill Carter, a reporter for the New York Times (and former Sun TV critic), leaves out not a phone call, not a "stupid executive trick," as he calls the maneuvers by NBC to keep both Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman in its late-night lineup.

He reports it all in a breathless writing style that is probably best left to the pages of Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins.

Mr. Carter writes, for example, that Johnny Carson was "the greatest individual star the medium has ever created." This seems a tad subjective. What about Lucille Ball or Bill Cosby -- or even in terms of salary and total viewers, Oprah Winfrey?

Mr. Carter also refers to "The Tonight Show" as "the centerpiece show in television."

How can anything that isn't in prime time and plays to only a sliver of the overall audience be a centerpiece?

What also hurts the credibility of the book is Mr. Carter's clear bias toward Mr. Letterman, whose skits and bits he details in rhapsodic fashion. In Mr. Carter's telling, Mr. Letterman is the purest comedic genius. He calls him at one point a "complete performer."

Where does that leave Barbra Streisand, Fred Astaire or even Jackie Gleason?

Mr. Carter leaves out a lot in the late-night world, such as Fox, cable and Arsenio Hall, who gets only slightly more mention than Pat Sajak. He dismisses Garry Shandling as a "creatively neurotic stand-up." This is unsettling when Mr. Carter is feverishly handing out the critical bonbons to Mr. Carson and Mr. Letterman.

This book is strictly the NBC-CBS late-night maneuvering, but it paints only part of the late-night picture. It is a seriously flawed picture of late-night comedy.

How crazy did the maneuvering and jockeying get?

Not very. The two central players, Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman, are, after all, quiet, even introverted, people. Jay Leno's idea of cutting loose is wearing a work shirt and driving around town in one of his restored antique cars. He does, at one point, eavesdrop on a conference call between NBC executives who are discussing "The Tonight Show." This is not high jinks of the first or even second order.

Most of the shabby behavior comes from NBC executives. And most of it has been seen by the entire late-night audience, as the network reconsidered its choice of Jay Leno for "The Tonight Show" in 1993 when Mr. Letterman's contract with NBC was about to expire. The network let both performers, including Mr. Leno -- who was already host of "The Tonight Show" -- twist slowly in the wind as they hemmed and hawed.

As Mr. Carter points out, General Electric, which by that time owned NBC, was visionary only when it came to that year's bottom line. As Mr. Letterman suggested on many late nights, NBC executives had a better feel for toaster ovens than TV comedy. They behaved as if both toasters and comics were things they owned -- but you had to plug in only one. About electricity that didn't come from a wall socket, they hadn't a clue.

They ultimately chose Mr. Leno over Mr. Letterman because, simply, he had a contract that said he would get "The Tonight Show" when Mr. Carson stepped down. To deny it to Mr. Leno would have cost NBC Mr. Leno's salary of about $3 million a year plus a penalty of about $10 million. That's a lot of toaster ovens.

The book does not confirm rumors that Johnny Carson was pushed out by NBC. Mr. Carson felt underappreciated by the network, Mr. Carter says, but he retired when he wanted.

The millions of dollars, the contract clauses, who was in on what conference calls -- this is the kind of reporting Mr. Carter is thorough about and supplies in massive doses.

The details are exact. The overall picture, however, is fuzzy.

Ms. Stoehr is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & the Network Battle for the Night"

Author: Bill Carter

Publisher: Hyperion Press

Length, price: 299 pages, $24.95

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