Bill Carter, “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & The Network Battle For the Night” (1994,1995) & Harlan Ellison, “The Glass Teat”(1969-1970, 2011)

Rightly or wrongly (probably more of the former), many people look at entertainment industry conflicts as an entirely who-could-possibly-care proposition, a battle between millionaires who shouldn’t want more than they have but apparently do (and not necessarily in terms of money, either – but money is supposed to fill those universal holes in our sense of self-worth, or so we’d like to believe.) For a normal person with a normal job, it’s difficult to fathom what could possibly be so important about being the one spearheading one particular show – and in the two decades since the The Late Shift was published, the idea of something like The Tonight Show having any sort of legacy that was worth fighting for, or that anyone would care so deeply about a format that seems antiquated and intentionally ephemeral, seems even more ludicrous – there were major changes in the television landscape happening alongside the NBC fiasco, and it’s even more significantly different now. That, and the fallout of the events in this book (and later events that were so similar that the same author wrote about them as well) ended up more or less taking the gleam from the Tonight Show – the way the show (and late night television in general) has evolved since Leno took over, left, took over again, and then left again has made it seem like something perfectly fine in its perfunctory and irrelevant niche – it’s mild entertainment for the ones who want it, and that’s pretty much it.

At the same time, considering how television was, it’s not that difficult to see why Letterman put so much into the idea of taking over The Tonight Show – it was destination television, a near-constant in the entertainment world for decades, a showcase for talent (like him and Leno), a venue available to millions of people who always know when it’s on. When you put so much into the idea of being an entertainer, being the lead in what was then the most consistent source of late night entertainment would seem the ultimate prize, the most prestigious position anyone could possibly have – and that’s especially true when you idolize your predecessor as much as Letterman idolized Johnny Carson. Letterman seemed to view The Tonight Show not only as the best venue for his talents, but also recognized it as the origin of his career. That kind of character study, of both Letterman and Leno, makes up about half of the book, the other being the executive wars going on primarily at NBC, where the players are definitely invested but often in ways that go back to that “war of the millionaires” idea (of course, it’s fun to read about it anyway, because the industry and the money involved means we can gleefully observe the bloodletting without any compunction – morality and proportion checked out long ago.) Both seem to have ideas and personalities that are the priority in their decision-making, Letterman’s devotion to craft and Leno’s to the idea of hard work going hand-in-hand with success, rather than just keeping a business afloat or even personal wealth – when the money does come up, it’s rarely the deciding factor (but it’s still there to make us workaday nobodies do a double take and wish we had their problems.) Where does one decide to bring art into the equation when you’re talking about something so inherently crass as television? It seems to be more at stake than would seem rational, but I guess people’s need for creative exposure and prestige would have to go somewhere – and at some point, it was going be with a medium as (seemingly) universal as network TV.


It’s likely based on nothing but established personality defects, but I can’t help but find that even though there’s rarely anything blatantly wrong with most modern TV criticism, there’s this feeling of stultifying dullness that creeps in. The idea of the “golden age” of television seems to inspire in a generation already raised by TV not a desire for introspection or context, but an assumption that “we’ve already won”, so all we need to do is tell everyone how intelligent and well-made everything is without adding any actual interesting thoughts to the mix. The kind of animating venom that really gets one thinking about the state of a medium, about its failings and what it could be, sometime feels absent – but maybe television has just been around in its current form for so long that everyone just sort of accepts that this is the best we can do, and it might be more sustainable sanity-wise to look at the successes that might be found in this current form and not constantly dwell on the never-ending parade of failings. It’s maybe better for the writers – but as a reader, I prefer the anger, to be honest.

Ellison’s The Glass Teat columns were being written in a very singular moment in American history, and also a very important transition point in the history of television. While there’s plenty in here that modern readers will recognize, there’s also plenty that just seems at odds with how things are now – the timidness and artificiality of TV news (especially in times of major upheaval) is about relevant as ever, but it’s difficult for us in the post-80s/90s media world (where envelope-pushing vulgarity became so common that it stopped having any sort of subversive edge) to grasp just how milquetoast and bloodless the majority of network TV was. For example, the sitcom format can always be accused of being intentionally removed from reality/humanity, but the quaintness of the shows Ellison describes is still very much a product of a decade or more earlier (one of the most interesting columns has Ellison defend the early, unsuccessful pilot version of what would become All In The Family years before it would be picked up and instigate some real change in the sitcom world.) Dramas seemed equally detached, going through cycles of heroic archetypes (doctors, detectives, and western heroes) that seem to ignore everything going on in the world of the common person. The sixties protest culture and its myriad of issues is a constant throughout the columns, presenting the kinds of new thoughts about race, gender, institutions, and freedom that were clearly absent from the world of television, making the few venues for it (like the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, one of those shows mentioned here that has mostly faded into obscurity) major rallying points.

It’s the sort of media criticism that is still widely practiced among the progressive/alternative thinkers – taking the giants of the entertainment industry to task for their failures to engage with the society of now, and simply pushing out frivolous junk for the lowest common denominator – but in the case of this collection, it’s in the context of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and the 1968 Chicago DNC. The networks are seen as a complacent part of the increasingly authoritarian systems that were shoring up in the wake of civil unrest, placating the masses with shallow entertainment while also undermining the protest movement in often subtle ways. These columns are part and parcel with that movement, pushing back against the form of mass entertainment – and as an underlying thesis statement, it gives each column, no matter where it ends up going, a sense of purpose, becoming a piece fitting into a larger idea gradually building up over the course of two or so years. Just having an guiding vision for criticism rooted in current realities is enough to make it interesting to read, both as a historical artifact and an example of how to write about television in a way that feels meaningful.


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