Tuesday, January 12, 2010

BIG RED STANDS UP: Bill Carter recounts a sequence of events towards the end of The Late Shift when Letterman was finally offered The Tonight Show by NBC (after Leno had already started in the slot), only under certain conditions -- no offer on paper, less money than the CBS offer, and Leno would continue hosting the show until his contract expired seventeen months later. It's a crappy offer, yet Letterman is so attracted to the legacy of The Tonight Show that he wants to take it. Producer Peter Lassally begs Letterman to understand -- the Tonight Show that he fell in love with didn't exist anymore, having ceased to exist once the show had been handed over from Carson to Leno.

[added: Found the quote: "It's damaged goods," Lassally said. "You're not taking over for Johnny Carson. You're taking for a show that no longer has any class. That's not worth anything; that's not any kind of victory. We can start from scratch at CBS and it will be your victory and it will be your show and you're not taking over for this damaged show." Bill Carter, The Late Shift p. 214.]

So Lassally pulls out his final card -- Carson himself -- and as Carter recounts:
Lassally went back to Dave. Call Johnny, Lassally urged him. Ask him what you should do.

"Why are you doing this to me?" he snapped at Lassally. "Don't you understand? I don't care. I cannot lose 'The Tonight Show' twice."

Letterman had never been so conflicted in his life. He knew he had to tell Ovitz which way he was going. He had very little time left. He was running out of ways to analyze it. But he still needed help. So he called Johnny Carson....

"You have to do what's best for your career," Carson told Letterman. "Do what's in your heart." The problem for Letterman, of course, was that in this instance those two sentiments didn't precisely coincide. He asked Carson what he really wanted to know: "What would you do if you were in this situation, Johnny?"

Carson didn't dodge the question. "I'd probably walk," he said. "I'm not telling you to do that, David. But if you're asking me what I'd do, if I had been treated like that, I would probably walk."
This afternoon, Conan O'Brien is probably walking, and for the same reasons. From his statement:
It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.

But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.

Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.
The word "consider" before losing indicates that Conan's not walking yet -- the ball remains in NBC's court. The Tonight Show stays at 11:35p, or Conan goes.


  1. What does Leno have on these people???

  2. kenedy jane4:04 PM

    Why doesn't Leno man up and walk away? 

  3. Adam C.4:12 PM

    Agreed.  Whatever you think of Conan (and I generally find him hilarious), how is there a single person left who watches television or is in the business of television who still holds an ounce of respect for Leno after this?  You can tell me all you want that this is NBC's decision and Leno has nothing to do with it....but I won't believe you.  I think Leno has been driving this every bit as much as the affiliates, and maybe more.

  4. It is one of the takeaways from Carter's reporting -- Leno always worked the affiliates hard, doing local visits, recording promos and bumpers, etc.  One of the benefits of his intense travel schedule.

  5. Heather K4:17 PM

    God, this mostly makes me think that Leno is (along with not being terribly funny) an ass!!

    And Mo Ryan I think was the critic who said they just want to take Conan aside and be all listen, walk away, make a clean break, he's just not that into you.  Because seriously Conan, what do they have to do to you to get you to say umm no thanks I don't truck that much disrespect for any amount of $.

  6. Andrew4:21 PM

    How much of the drop in Tonight Show ratings has to do with Conan delivering less than Leno than the Tonight Show having an even smaller lead-in than it did even one year ago? 

    Were I making the decisions at NBC, I'd keep Conan on the Tonight Show at 11:35-- not because it's going to pay off in ratings, but because it's part of the evolution that NBC needs to be going through right now to put more compelling quality shows on TV because it needs people to watch. And going with Conan over Jay signals that you intend to chase the funny in comedy rather than the middling and mediocre. 

    Which is why Conan will probably be hosting his show on Fox next year, the ratings for the Tonight Show, the Conan Show and the Late Show will all be down (as the audience scatters) and Stephen Colbert still has the funniest show on TV at 11:30. 

    What will be interesting to see what happens if NBC stays with Conan. Will Fox want Leno? He's not so much on their brand as much as O'Brien. Would ABC dump Nightline/Kimmel for a Leno show? Has Bill Carter signed the book deal for Late Shift 2: Electric Boogaloo yet?

  7. Jenn.4:21 PM

    Awesome press release from Conan.  I feel bad for him that he's getting whacked around like this. 

  8. Jackie4:22 PM

    The whole press release from Conan was brilliant. Good for him; he deserves far better (and so does Jimmy Fallon too, who will suffer from the fallout as well).

  9. Well, there remains the question: if you're NBC, what do you do?  Assume whoever you don't keep goes to Fox at 11pm, or ABC at 11:35p or 12:05a.

  10. isaac_spaceman4:26 PM

    The way I read Conan's statement is "I don't quit -- you are firing me."  The point is that he apparently feels, from a contractual standpoint, that his contract entitles him to host the marquee late-night franchise, not a second-tier show with the same title.  In other words, he will not do what he thinks his contract does not require him to do -- stand aside for Leno to retake the 11:35 slot.  That's different from "I quit" in two ways:  first, it asserts that NBC is the one in breach if it goes ahead with Leno, thus prompting the $45MM penalty; and second (and far less importantly), it leaves the door open for NBC to back down and leave Conan in the 11:35 spot. 

    Jay Leno has been such a complete jackass his entire career.  Such a prima donna.  Elevated the practice of throwing hissyfits over booking priority to an art form, hid behind shady tactics of his team, reacted to every criticism as if it were an unfair personal attack, left passive-aggressive stink bombs everywhere he went.  He wants to blame everybody else for the failure of the prime-time show of which he was the principal designer.  He was killing the affiliates and openly campaigned for a return to 11:35, but now he can't stop complaining about how unfair it is that NBC cancelled his 10:00 show so that it could do exactly what both the affiliates and Leno himself explicitly wanted.  It's circumstances like these that make me realize how hard the job of a network executive actually is.  Moving Leno to 11:35, Conan be damned, is the money move.  But would it be worth the lost money just to be rid of this insufferable jerk? 

  11. Just as a data point, Conan beat Letterman in the 18-49 demographic in the last quarter.

    I've never been persuaded by some of the arguments made on Team Conan though. As much as I support him, the claim that The Tonight Show *can't* begin after midnight is mere semantics.  And what kind of legacy does The Tonight Show really have when it was led uninspiringly for 17 years by the villain of this piece?  

    That aside, what a great response.  "I prefer not to."  

  12. Adam C.4:38 PM

    I just finished reading Shales' most recent pieces in WaPo, and he goes there too.  And with authority! from today's chat:

    Eastchester, N.Y.: Why doesn't Leno, whom I like, act like a man, admit defeat and decamp to FOX at 11? Beat NBC's brains out, rather than sliming on Conan.
    Tom Shales: I agree. I think Leno is starting to come off like a bully. Here is a theory: He did a lousy show at 10 o'clock ON PURPOSE, knowing that eventually NBC would want to un-do the deal and put him back at 11:30 (okay, 11:35). So the whole thing was a nasty calculated Machiavellian scheme, with Conan the hapless victim. Leno may find that when he returns to 11:30, the public has a radically altered image of him..........

  13. lisased4:39 PM

    What are we thinking about Letterman? Is he getting tired of late night? Could Conan wait out a year or two and take over Letterman's show?

  14. Adam C.4:40 PM

    A good Bartleby the Scrivener reference is always appreciated.

  15. Jenn.4:41 PM

    I also love how, without actually saying "Leno is an ass," Conan made it perfectly clear, by saying that he could not agree to stab Jimmy Fallon and the Late Show in the back.  I mean, who would do something like that?  Oh... yeah... right...

  16. Andrew4:50 PM

    So when does NBC trade Leno to the Jets?

  17. Letterman allegedly just reupped through 2012, and that's a whole separate mess in waiting, with both Stewart and Ferguson potentially viewing that desks as "theirs" once the time comes.  The gutsiest move to be made?  Fox to take Conan and announce that effective Fall 2010, it's going to move to a full 3 hour primetime schedule, with news at 11, Conan at 11:30.  Fox has the programming if they want to go there, especially if they stay on board with doing both X-Factor and Idol.

  18. Why would Fox do that?  10pm news and an 11pm late night show (especially if they anticipate Stewart ultimately moving to 11:30) is a superior position.

  19. lauri5:20 PM

    i don't usually watch conan, but tonight's show should be interesting.  the fact that zachary levi is a guest is certainly a bonus!

  20. Professor Jeff5:30 PM

    So, Isaac, from a contractual standpoint, I have a question for you (or for any of the other lawyers 'round here): Bill Carter's story from earlier today said that Conan's contract with NBC merely states that he'll host "The Tonight Show" -- NOT that he'll host "The Tonight Show" at 11:35.  Thus, if Conan tries to break his contract because of the switch to 12:05, NBC is implying that he'd be in breach, and that they could forgo paying the penalty and even try to keep him from making a deal elsewhere for some period of time.

    Two questions, then:
    1) Whatever Conan "feels" about the implications of his contract, does he really have any legal recourse if there's no time-slot guarantee?
    2) How the hell did Conan's lawyers not get a time-slot guarantee put into his contract?

  21. Despite what Leno has done to the slot, remember that 10 PM was the prestige/flagship slot for networks for years--ER, NYPD Blue, LA Law, Hill Street Blues, The Practice.  Also, 10 PM shows let them play more with content due to FCC safe harbor rules.  Finally, it lets them use Idol/X-Factor as a leadin more aggressively and build new programming.

  22. Flip that around: nothing that has Idol/X as a lead-in will be as good of a lead-in for the affiliates' 10pm local news as Idol/X as a direct lead-in.

  23. NBC will wise up, Leno will know he looks like an ass and "bow out gracefully". Hopefully Conan's image will not be tarnished by this fiasco, as he has shown class and humor during this miserable situation.

  24. I really respect Conan for this reaction.  His entire statement makes a lot of sense and if NBC does not rethink their plans he can and should walk out of there with his head held high (and take them for every penny he can).  

    I wonder if NBC expected Conan to just roll over and take the 12:05 time.  After all, he clearly had his sights set on hosting The Tonight Show for so long and passed on other offers that they may have thought he'd go along with this.  I suppose it's difficult to recognize integrity when you have so little of it yourself.

    Jay Leno is an ass and I will not watch any program he is involved in regardless of who he has on as a guest (the only reason I occasionally tuned in to his previous shows).  I will, however, watch Conan on whatever network he moves to.  

  25. Conan's letter suggests that he's going to try and set up a "course of dealing" argument--that "The Tonight Show" means and was understood by all parties to mean "the show that airs at 11:35 on NBC."  NBC will argue that the contract is unambiguous, and man, that's an interesting question.  I can see a judge going down the road of "Well, if the show is on at 3 PM, but is called 'The Tonight Show,' is that a breach of the contract?"  I'm probably colored as a member of Team Conan (or moreso, Team NotLeno), but I suspect that they could put in a ton of evidence on what people understand "The Tonight Show" to mean, and pretty much all of it would be favorable to Conan.  Indeed, wasn't a big part of the branding strategy for the new Leno show making clear it wasn't "Tonight" so people would remeber to tune in at 10?

  26. There's one big issue with Conan going, which never really got litigated because of how Letterman left--who owns the characters and situations Conan does--if Conan jumps ship, can he do "In The Year 3000," "Twitter Tracker," and the like.  God forbid, does NBC own the Masturbating Bear?  But NBC is apparently ready to dump Conan (they're looking for guest hosts), which gives him some power.

  27. Adlai6:07 PM

    Conan's monologue last night was also pretty funny - lots of shots at NBC.

  28. Well, from his monologue and another comedy bit that's apparently airing tonight, it's pretty clear where Dave stands (not that you couldn't have guessed).

  29. isaac_spaceman6:36 PM

    I'm sure that it wouldn't be worth your time for me to speculate about whether "the Tonight Show" was defined in the contract, and if it was, how, and if it wasn't, why not and what extrinsic evidence the two sides left around to resolve what may have been a deliberate ambiguity.  My pro-Conan bias may color my view on this, but in the absence of a definition, I don't think either side could successfully claim a lack of ambiguity.  The logical response to NBC's claim that "Tonight Show" refers unambiguously to any show called "Tonight Show" is that, as Conan has already said, the word "Tonight" seems incompatible with starting the show "tomorrow."  While it also would be odd for NBC to claim a lack of ambiguity if (as I assume is the case) everybody involved in the negotiations and a sizable portion of the audience understood the term to mean something other than what NBC wants, you're not supposed to be able to use that kind of extrinsic evidence to create, rather than resolve, an ambiguity. 

    But if the term is undefined in the contract (or not fully defined), Matt is right -- this would be a bonanza for the lawyers. 

  30. isaac_spaceman6:42 PM

    Take it with an industry-speak grain of salt, but Stewart has been on record for a while saying that what he does plays better on cable and he doesn't really want the headache of a network show.  He'd certainly have to jettison almost everything he does right now.  Maybe that's a good thing, I guess.  Anyway, Ferguson has the lowest profile of all late night hosts (that's not a quality judgment), and I have a hard time seeing Stewart there. 

  31. isaac_spaceman6:49 PM

    Re the three-hour Fox prime-time block, I have no idea whether the economics to Fox would be better with the extra hour or not.  Fox gets greater ad revenue with a three-hour block, but it gets greater affiliate fees and lower costs with a two-hour block and a 10:00 news hour.  I also don't know if Fox could get affiliates to pay for the extra hour, since affiliates could (like the NBC affiliates threatened) revolt and preempt the hour if they just wanted to keep their news hour, which I do know is an affiliate profit center.  Until you know those two things, I don't think you can know whether a three-hour programming block would be a good move for Fox. 

    But an 11:00 Conan, with all other networks on news -- giving Conan the run of the younger demo and a head start on the other late night shows -- is a tantalizing thought. 

  32. Oh how much do I love Hulu, as it has let me watch all the monologues...

    And I am sure I don't have to tell anyone here, but if you haven't read Carter's The Late Shift, it's a fine time to do so.

  33. The concern with Conan at 11 is that it puts him smack against Stewart.  I suspect that there's more than a little overlap in those two audiences.  (He has a similar, albeit smaller, problem at 11:30 with Colbert.)

  34. Regarding the question of whether a show that starts in the a.m. can be considered "The Tonight Show":  The show is a 5-day a week show, airing Monday through Friday, right?  If the show were moved to 12:05 a.m., would the first show of the week air Monday morning at 12:05, or Tuesday morning at 12:05?  Presumably it would be the latter, because while it may be Tuesday morning in a technical sense, most people consider it, colloquially, to be a continuation of Monday night.  I think people would still say of the first show of the week, "hey, did you see Conan on Monday?" and not "Tuesday".  So if I were a judge I'd probably rule for NBC on that particular point, though I think others have raised a valid point about the show's 11:35 air time being integral to its identity.

  35. Eric J.7:21 PM

    Here's a possible Hail Mary for NBC: Back a dumptruck full of money up to Jon Stewart's house for the 12:05 show, with no network interference, an under the table deal that Leno's gone in 5 years, a production deal for prime-time specials and a few hours a week on MSNBC to do whatever the hell he wants.

  36. I can't see Stewart going for that. Especially any deal that involves Leno being gone in 5 years. Conan learned that lesson the hard way. 

  37. Jennifer J.7:30 PM

    Who stayed classy (in San Diego and around the whole country)? Conan O'Brien. :)

  38. isaac_spaceman7:58 PM

    That's not true everywhere.  DirecTV at least runs only the East Coast feed of Comedy Central, meaning that the first-run TDS/CR comes on at 8:00 and has its first rerun at 10:00; they're not on at 11:00.  I'm not sure if this is true in non-East Cost markets other than LA/SF, or if cable companies follow this model. 

    In any event, if the point of this is to figure out whether Conan is optimized on Fox at 11:00 or 11:30, I would imagine that the ratings competition in Conan's target demo is far more fierce at 11:35 (Leno, Letterman, Nightline, maybe Colbert) than at 11:00 (local news, maybe Stewart). 

  39. isaac_spaceman8:03 PM

    Jon Stewart is under contract to Comedy Central, I believe for some time.  The principal reason that he is mentioned as a possible successor to Letterman is that Viacom owns both CBS and Comedy Central.  We talked the other day about the problems with assuming portability across sister channels, which are substantial.  Still, at least if Stewart left CC, it's clear that CC would still retain TDS (a show for which Stewart was not the only host) and its intellectual property.

  40. Carmichael Harold8:13 PM

    I wonder whether Fox's retransmission deal with Time Warner changes the calculation regarding the affiliates.  They may believe that the retransmission fees are the future of the business, and an additional 5 hours of content per week would increase those fees enough to make it worthwile.   At the very least, I'd expect that they have less of an affiliate concern than NBC does (leaving aside any role NBC affiliates may have in trying to block the Comcast acquisition).

  41. Carmichael Harold8:16 PM

    The L&O: Leno's Victims Unit is really a good bit.  Letterman has to be quietly thrilled to have a chance to take out all of his Leno frustrations now.

  42. Benner8:34 PM

    And he's hosting Hilary Hahn on Thursday!  

  43. Roger8:41 PM

    Fox affiliates love their hour-long early-late newscasts. I doubt there would be much affiliate enthusiasm for a three-hour prime time.

  44. As best as I can tell, Stewart's only signed through the end of this calendar year.

  45. Roger8:54 PM

    Apparently Stewart's contract is only through the end of 2010.

  46. Maret9:47 PM

    I am late to this party and don't have much new to contribute but concur with everyone on Team Conan, but since I work in PR (or am PR-adjacent) and get endlessly riled up by the celebs like Tiger Woods who either have the WORST PR TEAM IN THE WORLD or who don't listen to them, I want to add that publicists EVERYWHERE are taking notes on how well Conan is playing this whole thing and explaing to their clients that this is how you work a porblem to your advantage. I think there's sincerity to Conan's stance, but the timing, the statement, the monologue -- the man has a master touch on playing the game.

  47. Carmichael Harold9:52 PM

    Maret,  that's a good point, and the masterful way that Conan and his team have been playing it show just how poorly Leno's team has done (and I think this is a little late: http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/entertainment_tv_tvblog/2010/01/jay-leno-might-he-be-leaving-nbc-too.html )

  48. Interestingly, Nikki Finke is reporting that Conan's people didn't want him to issue the statement he issued.  That makes it even more impressive.

  49. I would imagine if some other channel started a show called "The Tonight Show" - the NBC lawyers would quickly define what the Tonight Show means. 

  50. Carmichael Harold10:24 PM

    . . . and that's even more brilliant PR.

  51. From Conan's monologue tonight:

    "Hello, my name is Conan O’Brien, and I may soon be available for children’s parties.

    "Welcome to NBC. Where our new slogan is, 'No longer just screwing up prime-time.'

    "When I was a little boy, I remember watching 'The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson' and thinking 'Someday, I’m going to host that show for 7 months.'

    "NBC says they’re planning to have the late night situation worked out before the Winter Olympics start.  And trust me, when NBC says something – you can take that to the bank!

    "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is still under fire for remarks he made about President Obama’s 'blackness.' Sources say Reid could face Congressional censure, or even worse, be promised the 'The Tonight Show' at 11:30."

  52. SNL has already started the jokes...wonder how they'll handle this one. 

  53. Remember that Lorne is the guy who brought in and stood by Conan for the original Late Night gig.  He's the interesting (and thus far silent) player in this game, since he has the most successful NBC late night show now, as well as control over NBC's one critical bright spot--30 Rock.  I wouldn't be shocked to see him pulling some strings behind the scenes.

  54. Hannah Lee12:08 AM

    Conan O'Brien's statement = Awesome!  And, because it can't be said enough, classy.

    NBC appears to have mishandled this in so many ways.  Shame it's eaten up their whole TCA press cycle, and watered down press on any of their other shows.  With Ben Silverman gone, I'd have thought NBC would have left these type of tonedeaf moves behind them, but I was wrong.

    Leno, with his "I would take back The Tonight Show if it were offered to me" comments several months ago, also has not impressed me.

    It will be interesting to see how this all ends up.

  55. Emily1:41 AM

    The HD feed on the west coast for The Daily Show and Colbert is also on at 8:00/8:30 versus the 11:00/11:30 of the regular feed. So it isn't just DirecTV.

  56. piledhighanddeep8:52 AM

    Yep, and some Fox affiliates are locked into rather spendy sitcom contracts, for shows they air immediately after their hour-long news.  I think such a switch would be a hard-sell to the affiliates.

    BTW, I'm also for Team Conan, if only because Jay Leno needs to Just. Walk. Away.

  57. piledhighanddeep8:58 AM

    The SNL promo aired last night went something like this:

    Sigourney Weaver:  Please join me this weekend when I host Saturday Night Live, with musical guest The TingTings.

    Andy Samberg:  Sigourney!  Run!  There's Danger coming this way!

    SW: Why?  What's the matter?

    AS:  It's Network Executives!  They want to move the show to 2AM!

    SW:  [makes "Home Alone" face] AHHHHHHH! [both run off screen]

    It could make for a very interesting SNL this week....this happened early enough in the week that they have some time to write a few things....

  58. side q: is Weaver's 23+ year gap between hosting gigs the longest for any SNL host?

  59. calliekl9:59 AM

    Adam- From what I can see, yes. It looks like the record was previously held by (the great) Madeline Kahn, who hosted in 1977 then again in 1995, a span of 18 years.

  60. Eric J.10:56 AM

    Here's another option - there's a talk show host out there who's show ran for years, and he retired at the top of his game. He's getting older, but still young enough to handle the daily grind. Looking back at his writers room, it was a murderer's row of comedians that went on to bigger things in front of and behind the camera that any young funnyman would kill to be associated with. And the producer that made the whole thing work has had some embarrasing mug shots out there and might be looking for some redemption.

    It's time to bring back Larry Sanders.

  61. Oh, yeah.  And he got Leno's pacing and schtick down.  Nicely done.

  62. I love Dave more than ever now that he's a cranky old man. He's held his tongue for years, and it's great to finally see him bust loose about how he really feels.

  63. Thank you for the reminder of the wonderful trainwreck that was the Chevy Chase Show.

  64. Read in a couple of places today that Conan supposedly broke down while explaining his decision to his staff and reading them his statement before releasing it to the press.

    I know the guy has plenty of money so I don't feel bad for him from that perspective, but to get so close to achieving a dream and then poof! Gone. That just straight up sucks. If, five years ago, Leno had just been honest about his intentions NOT to retire  (or if NBC wasn't run by a bunch of morons), this all could have played out differently.  Conan could have decided if he wanted to wait for Leno to really retire/die or give up on his Tonight Show dream and move to another network. Instead we have this.

    I'm sad for Conan.  (And his staff who all just moved to the west coast and may be out of work without a multi-million dollar safety net.)