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TV's Battle to Keep America Up at Night

SINCE David Letterman moved his popular late-night talk show from NBC to CBS six months ago, he has consistently won the nightly ratings war - easily beating ABC's ``Nightline'' and NBC's ``The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.''

NBC has no one to blame but itself for Mr. Letterman's defection to CBS, a point that is clearly brought out in Bill Carter's revealing new book ``The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night.''

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Carter, a television reporter for the New York Times, interviewed all the key players and provides a thorough and balanced account of what NBC did wrong, what CBS did right, and why Letterman walked.

More than just a play-by-play account of the actions that followed Johnny Carson's 1991 retirement announcement, Carter's well-written book is a look at the history of the late-night franchise, and of the men who host the shows that we would rather watch instead of going to bed.

NBC's grip on the late-night market began to loosen when Mr. Carson surprised the network with his plans to leave ``The Tonight Show.'' The king would be gone, but NBC had already secretly signed Mr. Leno to be the program's next host, unbeknownst to the more-experienced Letterman, whose ``Late Night with David Letterman'' show had followed Carson's for almost a decade.

According to Carter, NBC executives didn't know that Letterman wanted Carson's job, although they apparently never asked. (Letterman had dreamed of hosting the show for years.) They were also concerned about how his sometimes mean-spirited material would go over with viewers in an earlier time slot. His current success in that slot demonstrates how little they knew of their star's ability to adapt.

Leno, on the other hand, was reliable and personable both on and off the air, and was already the permanent guest host of ``The Tonight Show.'' To NBC, he was the logical Carson heir. Not surprisingly, Carson was never asked which man he thought should be his successor - but Carter implies it was not Leno.

When Letterman got word of NBC's decision, he was despondent. The comedian's stage persona, Carter reports, belies a shy and self-doubting man who detests the ``sleaziness'' of show business. Rather than rub elbows with executives he disliked to get Carson's job, Letterman assumed he would be considered for it based on his proven ability.

It didn't turn out that way. In 1992 when Carson officially retired, Leno, who owed much of his early television exposure to Letterman, took over.

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Fearing for the uniqueness of his program (which now followed a show hosted by a contemporary) and wanting it to appear at an earlier time, Letterman took the advice of close friends and went to mega-agent Michael Ovitz, chairman of Creative Artists Agency, to help him find a way out of NBC.

The network was aware of Letterman's pending flight, and was rethinking giving him ``The Tonight Show.'' Carter tells the story of how Leno, in a gutsy move, sneaked into a spare room and listened in on a phone conversation that NBC executives were having about whether or not to dump him. At least Leno now knew where he stood.

Ultimately Ovitz got Letterman bids from the major networks - including NBC, who had decided to force Leno out and give Letterman ``The Tonight Show.'' They later retracted the offer and denied having made it. But it didn't matter: Letterman had already decided to go with CBS, who offered him more money and the coveted earlier time slot.

Carter's eye-opening book leaves the impression that NBC will be remembered more for its loss of Letterman, than for its role as creator of late-night television.

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