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Weekend Reading: How Jay Beat Conan (and NBC)

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When the Jaypocalypse began to unfold at NBC last January, I doubt there was a person who covers TV who did not think: Well, there’s another book for Bill Carter! Indeed, the New York Times TV-beat guy—who immortalized the Leno-Letterman fight for Tonight with The Late Shift—is coming out with a sequel of sorts (The War for Late Night), and Vanity Fair has an excerpt.

There are lots of juicy bits, but the big takeaway: the guy with the best contract, wins.

There’s been a lot of talk about who and what was responsible for the implosion: Jay’s ratings were bad at 10 p.m., Conan’s were bad at 11:35 p.m., NBC had made a lot of terrible decisions. But the way it played out, Carter explains, had more to do with ontract stipulations than ratings figures. The affiliates, furious that Jay’s show (designed to cut NBC’s costs) was costing them 11:00 news viewers, demanded NBC pull Jay or they would pre-empt him. NBC realized Jay had to go.

But Jay had worked out an “unprecedented” pay-and-play contract that would cost NBC immensely (Carter doesn’t specify the amount here) if they just cut him. Conan did not (presumably his $40 million-ish penalty was much smaller), and he also did not have a contract guaranteeing the 11:35 p.m. timeslot. When Conan refused to move Tonight to midnight, NBC crunched the numbers and picked Jay.

I’ll let you read the excerpt for the many tasty details. But just to name one, Conan reportedly asked NBC executives more than once, “What does Jay have on you?” Here, we have at least a partial answer.

Postscript: And Jay’s ratings in the advertising demographic, after all that drama and money? Currently running below Conan’s.