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Conan vs. Jay: New Book Details 'War For Late Night' TV Dominance

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"The War for Late Night" (Viking, $26.95), by Bill Carter: An ancient fable tells of the greedy little boy who reached into a jar of nuts and grabbed himself a handful. Then trouble arose as he tried to get his hand out through the jar's narrow neck. With all those nuts in his grip, his hand was stuck. Only by releasing a few could he get his hand free.

This parable recalls recent woes of NBC, which tried to get its hand out of the late-night jar holding tight to both its stars – Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. It loudly, humiliatingly failed to do so, as Bill Carter recounts in "The War for Late Night."

Is there anyone who didn't follow this saga as it unfolded, especially when it reached a fever pitch in the past year?

It's certainly no secret how things turned out. Leno reclaimed "The Tonight Show" last March after his brief prime-time fiasco, and, reinstalled at 11:35 p.m., he continues to grind out reliable shtick, just as he has since 1992.

O'Brien, who bitterly left "Tonight" after seven months and NBC after 17 years, was soon snapped up by TBS, where his new late-night show, "Conan," premieres Monday.

But knowing the outcome before cracking the book won't spoil any reader's fun. Carter, a veteran TV reporter for The New York Times, takes the reader behind the scenes of the TV industry and into the psyches of its major players – both bosses and talent.

This is territory Carter knows well and chronicled in his 1994 best seller, "The Late Shift," which dissected NBC's misadventures choosing Leno to succeed Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" while letting David Letterman ditch NBC for a new home at CBS.

Carter plunges the reader into a boisterous, two-timing, high-stakes drama about the business of comedy at a sinking TV network that wanted to preserve a rare success – late night – in the worse way, and did.

By some accounting, the boy with his hand in the jar was Jeff Zucker, then chief executive of NBC. Zucker was determined to keep hold of both his "Late Night" star, O'Brien, whom he didn't want to lose to another network, and Leno, the demonstrated ratings winner on the show O'Brien coveted.

In 2004, Zucker had extended O'Brien's contract with a promise to reward him five years later with "Tonight," while extracting an agreement from Leno to relinquish the host chair.

It looked like Zucker had finessed a smooth changeover, a plan befitting his preternatural shrewdness running the "Today" show back in his 20s, then skyrocketing up the NBC corporate ranks.

But the plan hit a snag when Leno began making noises about heading to a rival network. It was suddenly up to Zucker to find something else for him busy at NBC.

"Why do you want to keep me?" Leno asks skeptically when Zucker speaks of his commitment to keep Leno in the NBC fold. "I already got canned."

Leno eventually agreed to relocate to a weeknight prime-time hour, where "The Jay Leno Show" landed in fall 2009, serving as a handy solution to NBC's host overload and a cheap alternative to its failing scripted series.

The show was an immediate flop. But even before then, NBC bosses were starting to worry that O'Brien wasn't cutting it in the 11:35 slot, where his predecessor used to thrive.

Here is where "War for Late Night" becomes really delicious. The reader is made privy to the scramble by Zucker and his minions to figure how to restore Leno to late night, find a consolation prize that O'Brien would accept, and placate affiliate stations, which were up in arms as the ratings for their late newscasts began to shrink in the company of "The Jay Leno Show" and O'Brien on "Tonight."

NBC's wackadoodle scheme: Plop Leno at 11:35 with a half-hour show, push O'Brien on "Tonight" to 12:05, and shove "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" into the wee hours at 1:05 a.m.

Last Jan. 6 – the day before O'Brien would learn of the proposed shakeup – he finished his show in a glum mood.

"I just have a bad feeling," he tells his manager, Gavin Polone. "I think (Leno is) going to hurt me in some way."

Once O'Brien got the bad news, things deteriorated further as he wrestled with how to respond.

At one point, Carter writes, Zucker lost patience with O'Brien's delaying and apparently threatened to strong-arm him with a provision of his contract that could keep him off the air for two years.

"I can pay him or play him," Zucker tells Rick Rosen, O'Brien's agent. "I can ice you guys."

Zucker could also move "The Tonight Show," it turned out: O'Brien's contract (unlike those of most late-night hosts) didn't include time-period protection.

Heartbroken, O'Brien refused to be a party to dislodging "Tonight" from its time-honored berth right after the late news – the same spot it occupied when Johnny Carson was the king of late night and when Conan had watched as a youngster with his dad. Instead, he issued his "People of Earth" manifesto, declaring his unwillingness to "seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting."

On Jan. 22, he hosted his last "Tonight Show."

In the eyes of many, O'Brien emerged from this debacle as the sympathetic victim, while NBC was branded as heartless and Leno as an eager opportunist.

But however much the public is inclined to simplify the narrative along such lines, Carter, to his credit, doesn't. He plays this latest late-night conflagration right down the middle. He keeps the story moving almost cinematically, crosscutting from one personality to another, deftly and revealingly presenting different points of view.

Along the way, he folds in profiles of the relevant late-night stars, who, besides O'Brien and Leno, include Letterman, Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

"The War for Late Night" is sufficiently current to include Zucker's announcement in late September that he will soon leave NBC Universal, where he had risen to chairman, as Comcast Corp. prepares to buy controlling interest in the company from General Electric.

And as O'Brien prepared to return to TV as a cable guy next week, the book explores the possibility that his exit from NBC was principled, yes, but a misconceived retreat even so.

"All of this 'I won't sit by and watch the institution damaged.' What institution?" poses Jerry Seinfeld in the book's final pages. "I thought he should just say, 'Yeah, let me go at midnight.'"

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EDITOR'S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.

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