August 7th, 2012

Whale fluke

Many ways to get it wrong (a TV post)

For maybe the fourth time (or maybe even the fifth -- I've read this a lot), I've finished Bill Carter's 1994 book The Late Shift: Lettermnan, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night. It chronicles what led to Johnny Carson leaving The Tonight Show in 1992 and the maddening maneuverings (or, in some cases, maddening lack thereof) that opened up the question of who would became the new Tonight Show host: Jay Leno or David Letterman? In the years-long process, among other things, CBS tried first to get Leno for a new 11:30 p.m. show, to make up for a disastrous attempt to make Pat Sajak a talk show host; Letterman got mad at NBC suggesting he split use of his NBC studio with a syndicated Maury Povich show1; Carson felt pressure to leave, so he did on his own terms before he could be forced out; Leno's manager/producer Helen Kushnick, someone who'd done genuinely good deeds2, bullied many people on Leno's behalf and got banned from NBC because of it; and Leno famously hid in a closet-sized office, surrepetitiously listening in on an executive discussion of whether the network should offer Letterman The Tonight Show after Leno had already become the permanent host and CBS had aggressively wooed Letterman. NBC's move was an 11th-hour possibility, an absolute last-gasp effort to keep Letterman at NBC -- after NBC had done a frequently piss-poor job of trying to make the admittedly mercurial Letterman happy.

The Late Shift is full of foul-ups, bleeps and blunders in the efforts to keep late night television, an enormous cash cow under the right circumstances, running properly. I'm fascinated by the story and I like the book -- though this time I felt the writing was often repetitive, making then overly reinforcing realizations about the players involved -- and a few details stuck out that I hadn't really noticed before.

Like this. Before NBC bit the bullet and made a (frankly bizarrely worded and conditioned) offer to hire Letterman for The Tonight Show, the network considered giving Letterman the 10:00 p.m. daily slot. This was nixed because the executives figured out that Letterman had no interest in prime time: doing The Tonight Show at 11:30 had been his dream, and CBS offered his nearest chance to do that. (And obviously worked; Letterman's been at CBS at 11:30 almost twice as long as he was at NBC total. Though the book stresses how tempted Letterman was, even after all the difficulties, to stay at NBC.) But that was the same programming idea NBC tried a few years ago with Leno. Which was a disaster. Heck, I wonder if the NBC higher-ups had remembered that idea and thought, Well, maybe this time... Nope, unfortunately for them.

The network made plenty of new foul-ups, bleeps and blunders after its 2009 transition from Leno hosting The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien hosting it -- part of the fallout was covered in the documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop -- as the network abandoned a years-old plan to make that transition a smooth one. Abandoned out of panic, because the network was in fourth place at the time, and panic makes it easier to make mistakes. And now I'm wondering whether a network abandoning the 10:00 p.m. drama slot for the sake of comedy was ever a good idea, and I'm glad it wasn't attempted any time that I've been a TV viewer (from the late 1970s on). Was it ever considered earlier, in the Fifties or Sixties when network TV did a huge amount of evolving? It almost certainly won't be tried again now at the network level, unless national broadcasting becomes a true anachronism. (The now-national cable network TBS is comedy-focused, and it turns out that's been its focus for a lot longer than I expected. The stakes are lower due to the lower costs of cable programming compared to broadcast network programming.) And imagining a post-broadcast TV landscape makes me a little wistful; I still kind of like that networks exist.

It's definitely an insecure business, television. I've worked in offices of insecure people; I've seen that skew people's perspectives. The Late Shift stresses the gigantic insecurity that comes from trying to entertain as ridiculously many people as possible, as prime time network TV needs to do. Good thing that's not my job. I likely would've made even bigger foul-ups, bleeps and blunders3 were I a network executive. I'll try to stay non-ulcered, thanks.

1 Letterman later said "It was almost this: Dave, when you're done with your ties, would you mind if we take them and rent them out to restaurants where you have to wear a coat and tie? We can make a little money that way."

2 In 1983, Kushnick lost her son to AIDS, due to a tainted blood transfusion he'd gotten after his premature birth. She became part of the effort to force the hospital that had transfused him, and the Red Cross which had handled the blood supply, into monitoring the blood supply for AIDS so others wouldn't die from that. She did a needed thing, and did more than just stew in her grief. Though today the Red Cross, honestly, should get rid of one big overreaction of theirs from that time where it does not allow declared gay men to donate blood; it's discriminatory and ill-thought-out and I'm guessing not what Kushnick and many others wanted. It's a ridiculous holdover from the AIDS panic of the early 80s. Okay, soapbox moment done. And it's six weeks until I can donate blood again...

3 That phrase comes from a network show. WHY DO I REMEMBER THIS? Have I watched too much network television? Here, have a promo: