Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy by Bill Carter

The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. Bill Carter. New York: Viking. 2010.

Late night TV can be just as cutthroat as any in the entertainment business. This became apparent during the late night dust up of 2009 when Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno went toe-to-toe over the 11:35 spot on NBC.

Five years earlier, in an effort to keep O’Brien, who was being wooed by the Fox network, in its late night stable, NBC promised the comedy host The Tonight Show gig, thus guaranteeing that the then host, Jay Leno, would step down. NBC executive, Jeff Zucker, who had made this promise, had yet to inform Leno that he was being forced into retirement. When the deal reached headlines, everyone in the business and TV viewers alike assumed Leno was voluntarily retiring. Leno himself didn’t dissuade anyone from thinking otherwise, which certainly explains why many were mystified when, in 2009, Leno jumped back into television with a 10:00 pm version of his former show. Even O’Brien was taken aback when he learned that yet again he was going to follow Leno. NBC, in fact, had persuaded Leno to do the show when it learned that ABC was sniffing around him to host a talk show on its network, possibly starting opposite both The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman (Nightline would have been a likely casualty had this deal gone through). Desperate not to lose Leno as well as their dominance in late night, NBC lured Leno, the perennial blue collar workhorse, back in front of the camera, even though he and producer Debbie Vickers were unconvinced that they’d be able to make the show work in that timeslot (clearly they could not).

If this all sounds like madness, it’s only because it is: the madness of a once hip, now struggling network trying to hang onto two of its late night stars. Their attempt to have their proverbial cake and eat it too blew up in their faces. They wound up losing Conan O’Brien anyway, all in an attempt to avoid an earlier contretemps between Leno and Letterman in their bids for The Tonight Show after the legendary host Johnny Carson retired. How this soggy mess came to be is the topic of Bill Carter's 2010 publication The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. Carter wrote the bestselling The Late Shift, which likewise looked at the battle over who will ascend Carson to the late night throne. Carter does a good job in his latest book of showing that the battle over late night came down to more than just a matter of show business, but was also about the changing tides in both network and cultural trends. Whereas Leno was the safe comedian whose broad appeal spanned across the Midwestern markets, O’Brien was edgier, sillier, more about the essence of comedy than Leno who narrowed joketelling to a matter of quantification---the more jokes he could deliver during his monologue the better. It was also about technology. Leno routinely won large margins with the “over 49” crowd, while O’Brien hit the college age markets. This meant that O’Brien was keyed into all the trends that young people were engaged in---Twitter, Facebook---and knew how to put on a show that appealed to a crowd that was more likely to watch his greatest bits online than on television. This, unfortunately, didn’t always translate well ratings-wise. While O’Brien’s The Tonight Show regularly won this important demo, he was demolished by Letterman, who for the first time dominated in the late night ratings race. The older viewers who stayed through the local news for Leno, were now jumping ship for the Late Show. Leno’s entry into primetime television wasn’t making much waves, at least not the kind that make network executives happy. Before the year was out, network affiliates were screaming about lost crossover viewership and essentially twisted arms at NBC to make a final decision about Leno. Still determined not to lose both stars, Zucker suggested a move that would be the final break between O’Brien and NBC: move Leno back into the 11:35 spot for a half-hour and push The Tonight Show back to 12:05. O’Brien, more concerned with the maintaining the integrity of The Tonight Show institution, opted out of leaving the show altogether.

As with the battle between Letterman and Leno over The Tonight Show nearly twenty years prior, bruised egos and hurt feelings went all around, but in the end show business (emphasis on business) won out. Leno returned to The Tonight Show, O’Brien wound up on TBS, and Zucker lost his job after the Comcast merger with NBC. But Carter ends this meticulously researched book with a far more intriguing question about the future of late night as well as television in general:

But (Jeff Gaspin, NBC executive) had also raised longer-term questions, including a most ominous one. He suggested that within five years NBC might not necessarily even be programming a Tonight Show, or anything else for that matter, in what the networks labeled the late-night day part. “While we have this heritage in the day part, you know, we also all used to be in daytime,” Gaspin said recalling the days when networks filled the daytime hours with soap operas, fewer and fewer of which were surviving. “We all used to be in Saturday morning programming,” he added, referring to the days when the networks made money on children’s cartoons. “The broadcast business is changing.”

In an age when online formats like YouTube and Hulu are gaining prominence, the future of network TV is up for grabs. How the networks (not to mention cable television) will deal with that remains to be seen. But if NBC’s handling of the Leno/O’Brien clash is any indication, odds are not very well.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

JFK and the Mythic Imagination

November 22 is the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy and while it’s been nearly fifty years since that dreadful day, the historic moment still has a hold on the American imagination. It is so deeply embedded in our culture that it has taken on the note of mythology. In fact it is our modern-day myth---the bold, handsome president shot down in the prime of his virility, while his wife and throngs of Dallas well-wishers who lined up along Dealey Plaza to watch his motorcade go pass look on in horror. In an age before 24/7 cable news networks, the assassination would be recorded not by a newsman but a dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder, whose film footage wouldn’t be released to the general public until a decade later. Under those circumstances, it makes sense that the event would balloon into mythic proportions in the American public. That day was like a blank canvas onto which people painted their own memories or contributed their answers to questions that still remain unresolved. The Warren Commission's handling of the investigation only sparked more questions, creating a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists who insist that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone assassin in Kennedy’s murder.

This mythic quality has likewise sparked artistic and literary fascination. Only recently Stephen King published a novel, 11/22/63, a tale of time travel which centers around the assassination. There’ve been other works in the past, including Don DeLillo’s Libra, and Oliver Stone’s 1991 release JFK, which looks at New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison's prosecution of the president's assassination. Television has also played its part, including a 1983 miniseries starring Martin Sheen and a recent cable version starring Greg Kinnear. The assassination is also heavily referenced in pop culture, such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The X-Files, and music videos. The cable TV series Mad Men dramatized the assassination in its second season to heavy anticipation.

No where in recent American history has an event scarred a nation so deeply. In JFK, America had found a model onto which it could project all of its best attributes: youth, vigor, imagination, intelligence. Not since President Obama’s 2008 presidential run, did Americans find similar excitement and transcendence. Yet over three years after that historic election, Obama is facing some of the most stringent opposition to his policies and criticisms from the left and the right. Kennedy likewise faced similar criticisms and experienced a major foreign policy blunder with the Bay of Pigs. Yet his untimely and tragic death has cemented not the criticisms nor the mistakes, but the Camelot image his widow and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy set forth after his death. We see only Camelot, not the real and very complicated man underneath. The myth lives on in our culture, in our literature, films, and TV, but we'd do well to separate the facts from the myth.