Book Review: The War For Late Night

I saw an interesting item yesterday -- Conan O'Brien's new talk show beat "The Tonight Show" in the ratings, once DVR numbers were factored in.

It provides an interesting coda for me, because I've just finished "The War For Late Night" by the New York Times' Bill Carter, the dean of TV industry writers. It was Carter who wrote "The Late Shift," which chronicled the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" in 1993.

"The War For Late Night" is the unintended sequel to that, brought about by NBC's folly in trying to keep Jay and Conan and ultimately pulling one of the biggest blunders in TV history with the ill-fated "Jay Leno Show."

Jeff Zucker, the former head of NBC, comes off the worst in the book, which is appropriate since he's systematically destroyed the network that once gave us "The Cosby Show," "Hill Street Blues," "Friends" and "Seinfeld."

While the thrust of "War" is on the Jay/Conan dynamic and "The Tonight Show," all of the other hosts -- Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert -- also appear, showing how the late-night dynamic has changed over the past decade, and how it is further changing in the era of YouTube.

All of the late-night hosts come out OK -- Carter doesn't play favorites -- and Carter does a great job in showing all of the behind-the-scenes drama that went on out of the public eye.

Conan comes out looking the best, shown to be a man of loyalty and integrity in the book. That doesn't mean Leno comes off badly, though Carter shows some instances in which Leno and Letterman made bad choices.

In the end, most of the blame -- deservedly -- lays at the feet of Zucker. Even other execs at NBC come off pretty well.

"The War For Late Night" is a thorough look at a time in which late-night television dominated the news, and it's a fast, fun, insightful read.

THURSDAY'S BEST BETS: Kind of a quiet Thursday, considering the networks have been bringing back new episodes. Only ABC is all-new tonight, with "Wipeout" preceding "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice."

Fox airs "Million Dollar Drop" at 8 p.m.