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

Media reporter Bill Carter dives into the recent late-night TV controversy.

ByABC News via via logo
September 28, 2009, 2:27 PM

Nov. 8, 2010 — -- It was the scandal that divided the nation into Team Coco and, well, everyone else. Comedian Conan O'Brien, who had been promised the lead job on "The Tonight Show," was booted from the chair after a few months in when NBC's bid to move the show's previous host, Jay Leno, to an earlier hour turned sour.

Leno resumed the show in his old time slot and O'Brien, after a giant payout courtesy of NBC, took some time off before moving to a new show on TBS.

In his new book, New York Times media reporter Bill Carter explores the whole debacle and how it changed late-night television for years to come.

Read an excerpt from the book below and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.

On a mid-March afternoon in 2004, Jeff Zucker found himself facing a meeting with real trepidation—and he was not by nature a trepid man.

By that point in his career Zucker had made the convoluted daily machine of the "Today" show run as smoothly as a Swiss fire drill; he had produced with distinction the endless election night of November 2000 for NBC News; he had navigated his way -- not unbloodied, but certainly unbowed ,through the piranha-filled water of Hollywood during a three-year stint running NBC's entertainment division; and he had beaten cancer -- twice.

So what was so unnerving about having to walk down to Jay Leno's dressing room at NBC's headquarters in Burbank, California, and hand him a closing notice for his long run as the host of "The Tonight Show"? Maybe it was knowing that Leno could not possibly have seen this coming, not with his ratings still dominant in late night, not with his compulsion to do this job -- and only this job as long as there was still breath in his lungs -- undiminished in the slightest. Or maybe it was the private conversation he'd had with Jay's executive producer, Debbie Vickers, two days earlier.

In her office at "Tonight", Zucker had run the scenario by Debbie, a kindred spirit because of their shared experience producing the two most famed franchise programs in television history, "Today" and "Tonight". Zucker's affinity with Debbie, built over the course of many one-on-one chats about the challenges of dealing with daily deadlines and the care and feeding of talent, had led him to trust her as one of his few real confidantes during his fractious sojourn running NBC's West Coast operations. It only made sense to run the plan by Debbie -- sound as rock, smart, dependable, patient, levelheaded Debbie -- before taking it to Jay.

When he sat down with her in her "Tonight" office, his presence didn't raise an eyebrow. Zucker almost always stopped in to see Debbie during his trips west; everyone knew how simpatico they were. Vickers had no reason to expect anything but another casual chat that March day, unless it involved some sort of confirmation that the network had agreed to another extension for Jay. That move was pro forma about eighteen months out from whatever the end date was on the current Leno deal, which was about where they were now. Vickers has every reason to believe things were moving along as normal.

Jeff Zucker, however, had other business to conduct. After some pleasantries he got directly to the point of the visit. He presented his proposal to Vickers in a "what if" sort of way: "What would you think if we extend Jay's contract now, but at the same time we make it clear this will be his last contract for The Tonight Show?"

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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