Monday, 01 November 2004
Leno and Letterman's battle for late night, again
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER - The succession plan at NBC's durable late night franchise, The Tonight Show, which was announced a while back, is a remarkable event in the television industry, as it is curious and odd. David Letterman over at CBS has sat at his Late Show desk of late, rightfully scratching his head (with requisite irony) over the announcement that Jay Leno will abdicate the Tonight Show in five years, in 2009, and Leno's follow-up at 12.30, Conan O'Brien, will succeed then.
A while back, when CBS announced that Craig Kilborn was vacating the late night slot after Letterman, the Late Late Show, it set off a course of events not as outrageous as the last time the late shift has had a shifting and re-adjustment like that in the early 1990s after Johnny Carson's retirement, and the battle that ensued between Leno and Letterman for late night supremacy. Kilborn, seeing the writing on the wall, knew that his urbane and affable sensibility was not suited for greater success in the late night market. Conan O'Brien, already a bankable star, couldn't be eclipsed, least of all by Kilborn. So Kilborn left to practice creative elsewhere, or just drink in the afternoon. With pals like Robert Evans and Merv Griffin, who wouldn't?
Leno, who recently renewed his contract to 2009, left O'Brien restless. O'Brien's built a strong constituency of loyal viewers, and he could up and leave and they'd follow. Suppose Leno re-ups further, well, the Tonight Show, the prize in the entire sweepstakes, wouldn't be for O'Brien. Letterman facetiously suggests that O'Brien, ever ambitious, worked his magic to unseat Leno. I don't think O'Brien is nearly as conniving as that, however, it's clear that NBC did not want to lose him. With Leno's future secure at NBC, at least to 2009, O'Brien could walk to another slot, possibly even CBS, as it's common knowledge that Letterman would probably vacate television sooner than Leno. CBS, doubtless with Letterman's consent, because he's friendly with O'Brien, wanted O'Brien for their franchise, because who else but he could inherit the Late Showwith relative ease and guaranteed success, than the guy who succeeded Letterman at NBC. Jeff Zucker and NBC thwarted the raiding of their rising star, and though the plan is somewhat unwieldy-five years in limbo-it works in everyone's favour. Leno isn't offended, and O'Brien's guaranteed a job into the foreseeable future.
What a difference this all is from the mess of over a decade ago, which precipitated Johnny Carson's ouster at the Tonight Show. Bill Carter, who wrote brilliantly about this in his book The Late Shift, which was made into a television movie, painted a damning picture of how Leno, and his agent, Helen Kushnick pulled off possibly the biggest heist in television history. Leno, who's always had this aw-shucks kind of demeanour, grew in the business thanks to his ambitious and uncouth agent Kushnick. She took Leno out of strip clubs and got him on Letterman's old Late Night program and the guest-hosting slot on The Tonight Show. Machiavellian in her approach, Kushnick constructed a grand plan to oust Carson and at the same time screw Letterman so as to secure the prize Tonight Show for her client. Leno claims he knew nothing of her machinations, which included a front-page story in the New York Post, which is reportedly to have angered Carson, if not was the last straw that precipitated his retirement.
Kushnick, who had the charm of an elephant in a china shop, had a raucous relationship with NBC during Leno's succession, despite the headaches she caused Leno was loyal to a fault. Kushnick's erratic and off-colour behaviour was off-putting, and though she got Leno the Tonight Show, she also nearly lost it for him. Leno failed to acknowledge Johnny Carson on his first show, which was not only astounding but also poor taste, which was all Kushnick's doing. And when Leno's ratings were less than solid (not to mention Letterman restless at 12.30), NBC considered severing their relationship with Leno, so as to procure Dave, and give him the Tonight Show that he so obviously prized. Fate stepped in, in the form of super agent Michael Ovitz, and he negotiated Letterman that sweet contract at CBS, and the once friendly relationship between Letterman and Leno, turned into a slugfest that's now in its 11th season.
Leno, not wanting a repeat of this dramatic escapade of years ago, saw the writing on the wall. In an effort to save his own reputation (perhaps NBC was thinking of buying out his contract and getting Conan on sooner), decided to declare his intentions now that he would leave at the end of his contract. And NBC could give him the courtesy of serving out his contract, while securing O'Brien, in what seems like perpetuity.
The loser in all of this? Again, it's David Letterman. CBS hasn't found a suitable replacement for their 12.30 show, and just who could possibly succeed Letterman when he does in fact decide to abdicate? Letterman is arguably the best in there is. His mix of wacky hilarity, with the style borne out of the great talkers of the past-Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Carson-is lacking from his competitors. Jon Stewart could one day be it, but he's carving his own niche becoming an icon, breaking out of the late night field, becoming more a cultural or political icon than anything else. Leno was never the inheritor of the Carson legacy; it was just the franchise that he got. Letterman was the anointed one, and since being slighted for the prize, the legendary Letterman's twilight deserves a more fruitful ending.
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