Ever since The Late Shift, his 1995 best-seller about Jay Leno and David Letterman’s fight for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show desk, journalist Bill Carter has periodically come under fire for his cozy relationship with NBC and its outgoing CEO Jeff Zucker, who’s given Carter an unusual amount of access over the years. And while Carter has wisely worked those connections again to pen his latest insider’s account of late-night, The War for Late Night, he also just plain got lucky. By making the monumentally unwise decision in 2009 to bump Leno to prime time so Conan O’Brien could have The Tonight Show and then reversing that decision in an embarrassing public debacle earlier this year Zucker all but hand-delivered a Late Shift sequel to Carter on a silver platter.
Media coverage of the whole mess was so exhaustive that much of the book feels like a retread, but embedded in it are some juicy details: O’Brien was so convinced that NBC had an irrational affection toward Leno that he stayed in denial about his low ratings at 11:30; his agents never secured a time-slot guarantee when he took over Tonight (a mind-blowing oversight that made it impossible for O’Brien to sue when NBC proposed moving his Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m.). The book ends with a fascinating interview with Leno supporter Jerry Seinfeld, who makes a case that O’Brien should have taken his lumps and stayed at NBC instead of settling for a new gig at TBS. In the end, Carter presents a pretty compelling argument that while the fourth-place network lost the public relations war, it probably won the late-night battle. B–