I just got a copy of Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night book about NBC’s various missteps surrounding Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, The Tonight Show and the Leno-in-prime nightmare. The opening chapter is a peach–it shines a very bright light on Jay’s scheduled 10 p.m. performance for affiliates and ad buyers at New York’s Town Hall theater in May of 2009, which actually went on closer to 10:30 (perhaps an omen for the ill-fated Jay-at-10 ploy?).
Carter carefully observes an uncharacteristically off stand-up performance by Jay, and the at-times indifferent reaction from the crowd. (Carter of course weaves some A-list Hollywood gossip in there too, such as Lloyd Braun texting Marc Graboff during the performance to “Make [Jay] stop!”) Carter posits that Jay is never comfortable in New York–it’s Letterman’s turf.
But he also picks up some early signs that Jay’s heart wasn’t in the new venture, including his indifference toward his appearance that day in New York (Jay sported the “Leno-fro,” according to one observer), and his dated material, which ran counter to NBC’s claims that the new Leno show would be topical and of the moment.
Leno had famously wooed the affiliates across the country to ease his transition to The Tonight Show decades before; his affinity for the affiliate body is well documented.
One meet and greet with the press that May reinforces this idea.
“You know, there is no NBC,” said Leno. “There’s only the affiliates. They’re the customers. NBC is just a bunker in Burbank somewhere, and you have all these affiliates. They buy your product. And if your franchisees are unhappy, they close your restaurant. Simple as that.”
Conan seemed to have picked up on the importance of the affiliates from Jay.
Conan, meanwhile, had passed much of the three months between the end of his run on Late Night in February and his arrival in Los Angeles to start work on The Tonight Show hopscotching the country making nice with affiliated stations, doing the same glad-handing of news anchors and smiling through the same promotional copy urging viewers to watch Phil and Denise on Channel 13 or Frank and Diane on Channel 5 that Jay had made de rigueur for Tonight hosts. In January Conan spent a morning in Detroit, visiting an auto show with reporters from WDIV, and an afternoon in Chicago, cutting promos with anchors for WMAQ. “This is old-school television,” O’Brien told the Chicago Tribune. “You actually go into American and you talk to these people who put your television show on. I really find it fascinating.”
By May, Carter notes, O’Brien was exhausted.
“It may be the hardest I’ve ever worked,” he said of both preparing for the new gig and meeting with affiliates nationwide.
I’ll share anything else I see in the book that’s of interest to those at the NBC stations.