EXCERPT: 'The War for Late Night' By Bill Carter

A petite redhead in her fifties with a work-hard, stay-humble producing style and a thoroughly winning personality, Vickers had worked for Jay Leno since the beginning of his "Tonight Show" tenure in 1992 (and for Johnny Carson before that). After witnessing Jay survive his crisis-filled first eighteen months on the show, then having helped steady him, refashion him, and guide his ascension into late-night supremacy, she was able to read the feelings, intentions, and moods of the often impenetrable Leno better than anyone else on the show -- or the planet (not counting Jay's wife, Mavis, at least). Zucker's proposition, though, needed no penetrating insight.

"I don't think that's gonna work," Vickers told him, thoroughly taken aback by what she was hearing. The idea that NBC was even considering such a move -- let alone now running it by her -- left Vickers incredulous: Had the network been mounting this plan over the course of weeks? Months? While everybody at the show had been blithely working away? All she could picture was an image of a husband having an affair while the wife remained clueless.

"Jay's not gonna go for this," Vickers told Zucker flatly. If anyone knew how unremittingly committed Jay Leno was to "The Tonight Show", now and forever, it was Debbie Vickers. "I mean, it's ridiculous."

Ridiculous or not, two days later Zucker steeled himself to go face-to-face with Jay himself in his private dressing room. The plan that he had in his (rhetorical) pocket, in fact, involved no "what if" scenario at all: NBC had already decided its course of action over several months of consideration and talks in New York and LA. What Debbie Vickers didn't know, ad what Jay Leno wouldn't know either (but it probably wouldn't take long to guess), was that NBC had for weeks been quietly back-channeling its plan for the future of "The Tonight Show" with the representatives of its other late-night star, Conan O'Brien. And prior to this sit-down with Leno, both sides had already come to an agreement.

Conan O'Brien, after a rigidly specified waiting period, was going to become the fifth permanent host of "The Tonight Show" -- and the fourth, Jay Leno, was going to go gently (NBC hoped) into that good late night.

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