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

4.12  ·  Rating Details ·  1,077 Ratings  ·  71 Reviews
Recounts CBS's wooing of late night talk show host David Letterman and how Letterman and Jay Leno faced off over who would host the Tonight Show.
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published February 28th 1994 by Hyperion (first published 1994)
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Aug 20, 2012 CS rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
After reading "The War for Late Night," I went back re-read Bill Carter's original book on the late night battle, "The Late Shift."

Although the events of the book are now nearly twenty years old and most of the key figures (aside from Jay and Dave) have either died, left TV, or faded away, it's still a compelling narrative about the business of television and the inherent conflict between programming something "good" vs. programming something that looks good on a spreadsheet.

And it's illuminatin
Jun 08, 2011 Chip'sBookBinge rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shocking, but this is the first time I've ever read this. This was another one of those books where the majority of the stuff within it's pages I had already heard about from different sources over the years: Online forums, Magazines, Entertainment News Shows, etc... So, for me there really was no desire to give this one a read. But then I heard that Bill Carter had a new book out called The War For Late Night, detailing the train wreck that was Jay Leno Vs. Conan O'Brien. Once I had a copy of t ...more
Bill Carter covers the inside-baseball aspects of the early 90s transition from Carson to Leno (and almost to Letterman) in a style that's almost suspenseful. I certainly remember the Leno-Letterman war that followed Johnny Carson's retirement, and was, at the time, a die-hard Letterman fan, but I had no idea what all took place in those shaky 2 years between Carson's retirement announcement and Leno's coronation.

The most interesting parts of the book focus on the two stars -- Letterman and Leno
Feb 06, 2010 Jennifer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
1. I don't watch a lot of late night TV.
2. I remember when Carson retired, and staying up to watch his last show, but I was only 13 or so at the time.

I decided to read this book in light of all the latest late night hullabaloo surrounding Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. I didn't expect to find myself so deeply interested in all of this, but I am.

Before reading "The Late Shift" I was of the opinion that Conan O'Brien was really getting screwed by NBC, just as David Letterman had been years before.
Nov 09, 2011 Ruben rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A thorough insight to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that created, extinguished, then rekindled and prolonged the hand-off of America's greatest television program, The Tonight Show. The book outlines the careers of both David Letterman and Jay Leno; introduces their respective "camps;" and details the battles they faced as they pursued the late night crown. Bill Carter does a great job of gathering and sharing insider info from both sides of the battle, as well as the corporate perspective. ...more
I read this in less than a 24 hour period. Being a fan of late night television at different points of my life, this was the book to tell you all about it.
G. Branden
Nov 13, 2014 G. Branden rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was brought to my attention by the excellent HBO movie adaptation (starring Daniel Roebuck, John Michael Higgins, Kathy Bates, and a whole bunch of character actors you've seen in a dozen other productions).

It's a fine book written with spirit and moves at a good pace, covering the first Tonight Show success debacle, way back in 1993.

The author, Bill Carter, seems to try hard to retain a neutral stance, but it's hard not to read the narrative as one of David Letterman's betrayal by his
Jan 24, 2010 Riley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Dug this book out of my boxes to re-read because of all the late night issues. I had forgotten how much I like this book. It is one of the first books that really got me interested in entertainment. Although it is present's both the Letterman and Leno sides well, you can see that the author does favor Letterman. No doubt I picked up on and influenced my optionality.

There are A LOT of similarities and I guess some things never change, be it 1993 or 2010.

"Wright (NBC Executive) had even asked the
Apr 29, 2010 Lauren rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I followed the Conan - NBC - Leno debacle fairly closely. And I kept hearing references to what happened with Letterman - NBC - Leno and decided to pick up The Late Shift. For a book about the entertainment industry, it's a surprisingly smart book (and better written and researched than many books I've read on more important subjects). The writing style has some weak spots (and I think the copy editor was told to give the manuscript no more than a brief review), but I enjoyed this book. Despite ...more
Oct 04, 2012 Denise rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night
By: Bill Carter

This was a fascinating account of every player that had their hands in on the late night battle. How NBC could run under the mismanagement and keep someone like Letterman, with egos the size of boulders, is beyond me. Letterman is and always will be a true genius, not everyone appreciates his style, appeal or his drive.

I have been a Letterman fan since I was 16 years old and I have always like the kind of show he has
Jul 30, 2011 Rebecca rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: tv
I read another book from Carter back in like 2007 and I loved it and have been meaning to pick this book up forever. With the new late night wars going on, I finally remembered and I guess others had the same idea as me, because I had to wait a few weeks for this book. Mygod, was it worth the wait! So dated and so timely at the same time. Okay, so like Letterman used to have Conan's slot on NBC, shit happened and he went to CBS, where before him, they didn't have any late night shows, for the mo ...more
The Late Shift by Bill Carter tells the story, in a very clear and even-handed fashion, of the “Battle for Late Night” of the early 1990s. David Letterman and Jay Leno were two televisions stars, both up for the coveted position Tonight Show host. This book details how network executives and agents, producers and stars schemed, connived, argued and fought over the fate of this this lucrative position.

It is utterly fascinating, and Bill Carter tells it well. He bends over backwards to be fair to
Mar 14, 2012 Kim rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who want their opinion of Jay Leno validated
Shelves: nonfiction
I started reading this author's Leno/Conan book first, and then I realized that I would get more out of it if I read the Leno/Letterman book first. It was really interesting to see how much flying by the seat of one's pants television executives do in real life.

That said, the author's attention to detail gets a little excruciating at points. If you are one of those people who can't keep track of elf names in fantasy novels, you are going to get tired of trying to keep track of network executive
Jul 09, 2009 Simone rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2009-read

sadly i'm too young to really remember carson doing the tonight show, or even his leaving. my interest in the late night battles was peaked in my history of tv class last year when my professor showed some letterman at nbc clips, and i was shocked at how funny and sort of out there they were in a post-modern way.

i found this book to be completely fast paced and fascinating (except for a few bits) but it's very behind the scenes, and i suppose you would need to be the type of person to find inte
The main take away from this book is never assume you have the position you have if you work with NBC. They are so messed up. Reading this 2 decades after it was written is hilarious because NBC still makes huge fuck ups with the tonight show and just handles it horribly. The book does great at giving background on Letterman, Leno and all the behind the scenes people involved in the battle for The Tonight Show after Carson announced he was stepping down. I felt the book was a bit unfair to Leno ...more
The Leno/O'Brien debacle earlier this year sparked my interest in this book, which was an incredibly absorbing, entertaining and at times shocking read. I had no clue about the extent of behind-the-scenes TV operations and how much sneaky, ruthless maneuvering truly goes on. Positions in this field are not for the faint of heart. The book goes into great detail about the many blunders that NBC made in going from Carson to Leno and letting Letterman get away to CBS, and with all of this history i ...more
Loved the topic and glad to hear that the parties involved generally agree that the book is an accurate and honest portrayal of the events surrounding the late night war. However, it was a hard one to get through. It took me forever to finish and seemed to drag on a bit. The chapters were long (I like shorter ones that I can easily finish in one sitting before heading to bed) and there were a lot of "players" to keep straight. Unless you're a die hard fan, I'd recommend just watching the HBO mov ...more
Julie Elliott
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 12, 2013 B rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, westend
This is a very interesting little yarn. What's most interesting about it now is how badly everyone wanted and fought over the 11:30 timeslot on NBC. How devaluated a prize! And yet virtually the same situation recurred re: Leno & Conan.

I think everyone who reads this would agree that the book sides strongly with Letterman and concludes with Letterman triumphant. Again, amazing what time can do. Letterman is certainly a huge success, but the kind of success imagined at the time of the writing
Aug 14, 2010 Camelama rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who likes Late Night tv
Great writing about the players behind the scenes of Late Night TV in the 90s. I looked forward to my nightly chapter and frequently cheated and read more than one a night. Flowed nicely, flashbacks were handed very well, and characters introduced and fleshed out nicely as needed.

Reading this after the recent Leno/NBC/Conan shenanigans made it even more interesting. I am left wondering if any of the NBC execs from that time were still left and involved in the recent "I call take backs!" of Leno
Thomas Hunt
Sep 15, 2013 Thomas Hunt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'd seen the movie, but now I read the book. The epic tale of Letterman vs. Leno. Leno had a pitbull working for him, and was willing in hide in closets spying on phone calls to get the job. Letterman never told anyone at the network how much the job meant to him, until it was too late. Johnny Carson's opinion didn't matter at all. Leno took over the Tonight Show and ruined it, ruining it a second time when he stole it back from Conan O'Brien. Great book, by a great journalist. I also enjoyed hi ...more
Jun 03, 2014 Jacob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library-books
Inside-baseball for sure, but very interesting to read now that, essentially, the late night war is over, at least as far and Dave and Jay goes. Not to spoil things, but I thought the triumphant ending - Dave is the apparent winner, and about to take his triumph to Hollywood as the host of the Oscars - was especially poignant considering what came next. And it was fun to see Conan O'Brien pop up as a bit player, who we all know became the central figure in this book's sequel, which I'd like to p ...more
Nov 02, 2011 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps books like this aren't meant to be read 15 years after the fact. I really enjoyed the inside-Hollywood aspect of it but found it a bit too much a love letter to David Letterman (and I like Letterman). It reads, I imagine, much like an encapsulation of the 2004 Presidential campaign would have read if it had been written in October, "John Kerry would handily unseat Bush..." except those things aren't true anymore. Still, I liked reading it and look forward to picking up Carter's book abou ...more
Debra Komar
Jul 08, 2014 Debra Komar rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Gossipy goodness about the silliness that was the coronation of Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. It now feels a bit dated, particularly since the story went on to include Conan O'Brien and all that nonsense, but Carter tells a fun story and keeps the action moving. I enjoyed it because I have always preferred Letterman to Leno - I think Dave is sharp and Jay is dull to the point of disappearing - and it is clear the author feels the same way. The palace intrigue and behind the scenes drama makes fo ...more
Jan 15, 2010 Gary rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The current controversy between Leno and Conan O'Brien reminded me that I had read this book. Apparently, history repeats itself. Carter tells how Leno edged out Letterman to replace Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. It's an interesting look into the lives of late-night hosts as well as the business side of television. By the way, Carson refused to appear on Leno's show, but he did make a couple of surprise appearances on Letterman.
Jan 19, 2010 Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2010
This book covers the Leno/Letterman late-night kerfuffle in great detail, yet still manages to stay fast-paced and fascinating (for the most part), with lots of first-person testimony.

Jay Leno is even more of an enigma to me now than before I read it. Is the nice guy act truly an act? How can a nice guy employ someone as aggressive and confrontational as Helen Kushnick? How can a grown man think SPYING IN A CLOSET is anything but weird? The sequel is going to be off the chain.
Stephanie Storey
As a longtime television producer, I can attest that this book is a completely accurate and fair representation of the late night television industry... and it taught me a lot about my own business. I still recommend the book to young professionals entering the talk television landscape. So treat it like an indispensable text book for learning about working in television... Or just read it for kicks. It's one hell of an entertaining ride.
Paul Carr
May 23, 2015 Paul Carr rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Stunning detail on the tumultuous late night TV transition after Johnny Carson left The Tonight Show, focusing on NBC's difficult Leno/Letterman decision and Dave's excruciating NBC/CBS choice. Fascinating to read in-the-moment reaction 20 years later, now that both stars have retired with full legacies. The book is extremely inside the TV business, but if that interests you, you'll love the book.
Paula Martin
Apr 02, 2013 Paula Martin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really, really enjoyed this book, but in order to like it I think you would need to have an interest in the inner workings of the television industry. It would also help to be a fan of late night network TV or to have taken an interest on the events that led NBC to make a choice for a Carson successor. I found this to be a page turner, but I can see where some people might think that it just goes on and on.
Jul 21, 2016 Erik rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great book. Mildly dated, but the tension and back and forth behaviors are fantastic. Still affirms what I believe about Letterman being better than Leno, but it's a great analysis and insight into one of the more interesting media fracases in the last two decades. Leno's manager was a power-hungry individual and if he didn't have her, I believe things would have turned out differently. Highly recommended.
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William J. Carter joined The New York Times as a national media reporter in 1989. In addition to his work for the newspaper, Mr. Carter has written numerous articles for The New York Times Magazine, including four cover stories.

Mr. Carter has covered the television industry for over 25 years. From 1975 until 1989, he was a television critic for The Baltimore Sun, writing four to six columns, repor
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