February 11, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

In the Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & the Network Battle for The Night

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In Season
Bill Carter

In The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & the Network Battle for the Night, New York Times TV correspondent Bill Carter draws a script from the turbulent world of late-night talk shows as theatrical and cautionary as any prime-time melodrama.

His detailed account of the machinations — both corporate and personal — ignited by Johnny Carson’s retirement quickly satisfies the first requirement of the ”true story behind” genre: the stunning revelation. Recasting the frenzy of speculation sparked by Carson’s surprise 1991 announcement, Carter reveals that NBC had seven days earlier signed current Tonight Show host Jay Leno to a $6-million-a-year contract promising him the legendary late-night franchise in order to prevent the comic from jumping to CBS. That decision, unbeknownst to most participants, ironically provoked the entire two-year roller coaster of wooing and recrimination that landed cranky superstar David Letterman at CBS.

In tracking that journey, Carter unearths similar juicy nuggets, each related with the sure, suspense-evoking hand of a thriller novelist — how Leno’s abrasive manager, Helen Kushnick, planted a story in the New York Post that helped nudge Carson out the door, how a desperate Leno hid in a closet and eavesdropped on the corporate conference call that would decide whether he would keep the Tonight job just seven months after he’d received it, how NBC finally if halfheartedly offered Letterman that assignment at the eleventh hour, just before the Jan. 15, 1993, deadline for NBC to match CBS’ offer.

Though he concisely traces the economics of the late-night market, Carter smartly emphasizes how more human factors — the pressure of a failing primetime lineup, Dave’s unappreciated on-air boss-bashing-contributed to the shortsightedness of NBC execs. His disturbing tale of how Jay’s diligent brownnosing of network affiliates saved his candidacy — and how Letterman’s snubbing of a Late Night executive doomed his — exposes an NBC management style better suited to high school than to Hollywood.

Carter’s most glaring deficiency, in fact, lies in not fully denouncing such pettiness. His Times instincts lean too heavily toward the pretense of ”balance,” lending equal if spurious weight to the various players. Where he has no need to maintain a courteous front — as in his portrayal of the since-fired Kushnick’s tirades — his tale sizzles with drama.

If entirely unappealing, Kushnick at least emerges as a full-blown character, and Carter valiantly attempts the same with two of the most overexposed stars on TV. His depictions of Leno and Letterman resonate throughout the bottom-line decisions, missteps, and intrigue that plagued this messy public affair. As behind-the-scenes characters, Carter’s Dave and Jay easily rival the flamboyance and fascination of their on-screen personas. A

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