Bill Carter, The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night (Hyperion, 1994)
Reissued in paperback by Hyperion in 1996.
Bill Carter's in-depth account of the early-1990s late-night television saga opens with late-night television king Johnny Carson's May 1991 surprise announcement to NBC network affiliates that he would be retiring from "The Tonight Show" a year later.
Carson didn't know that Jay Leno, then the permanent guest host of the show, had secretly obtained a contractual guarantee from NBC that he would be "The Tonight Show"'s successor. NBC concocted this plan to keep CBS from luring Leno away—they did not think it would become an issue, because they did not expect Carson to retire so soon.
NBC wanted to keep David Letterman in the 12:30 "Late Night" time-slot and have Leno at 11:30 in the "Tonight" show slot. The network wanted to keep both stars and it certainly did not want Letterman to go. But Letterman also wanted the "Tonight" show.
NBC offered Letterman a primetime show—he didn't want it. In January 1993, facing the upcoming expiration of Letterman's contract, NBC did finally offer Letterman the "Tonight" show (at this point Leno had already been permanent host since Carson had retired)—if Letterman accepted the offer, he would take over when Leno's contract expired in 1994. Although the gleam of the "Tonight" show had been somewhat tarnished by recent maneuverings, Letterman still grappled with the decision because it was the show he had always wanted. It had been his childhood dream to host the "Tonight" show—Johnny Carson was his hero and the show had an illustrious history. CBS, on the other hand, offered Letterman millions of dollars, ownership of his program, and respect.
Carson was surprisingly not given consultation regarding his successor. Although he never openly said whether he supported Letterman over Leno, when push came to shove, he was in Letterman's camp. Letterman sought Carson's advice when he was offered "The Tonight Show" after being wooed by CBS and already having lost the show to Leno. Carson said to Letterman, "I would probably walk."
In January 1993, David Letterman decided to leave NBC for CBS. He would become host of his own "Late Show."
Bill Carter had access to all the major players from the events following Carson's retirement announcement, including Letterman, Leno, and Carson. The Late Shift is an intriguing inside look into the political maneuverings of the late-night television business: networks, time-slots, competition, "intellectual property," egos, money, lead-ins, guest-bookings, ratings, and ... comedy. Of the excruciating effort put into creating comedy five nights a week, Letterman in a bout of startling candidness revealed to Carter, "You kind of wish this could get a little easier, but it never gets any easier."
The Late Shift was hailed as a major achievement of balanced reporting and in-depth research. A critical minority argued that the book's detailed political minutiae could have benefited from some trimming and Carter's writing could have used a bit more editing. Joyce Millman, of Salon wrote: "Carter wins points for legwork, but his prose is a queasy combination of good gray journalism and faint stabs at 'color'."
Bill Carter has reported on the television industry for more than 20 years. He covers the television industry for The New York Times and is co-author of the book Monday Night Mayhem. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a native of Brooklyn, New York.
Carter co-penned the HBO Pictures film adaptation of The Late Shift (1996).
TV Guide review of film, also discusses book and plot
Joyce Millman Salon article – discusses both film and book
Some editorial review snippets on Amazon