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Brian Williams, Matt Lauer and the entertainment angles of network TV news


In happier times: Brian Williams and Matt Lauer on Today show set.

In light of NBC anchor Brian Williams’ transgressions and suspension, much has been written about whether the celebrity status of today’s news anchors has been injurious to their journalism. They’re now pretty much expected to appear on late night comedy shows to further sell “the brand.” Eighteen years ago, when Williams was still an up-and-coming MSNBC anchor and Matt Lauer was in his first year as Bryant Gumbel’s Today Show replacement, I interviewed both men in New York about their willingness to straddle both worlds. Back then, Williams thought it would be “crossing a line” to host NBC’s Saturday Night Live. He eventually crossed that line while also “slow-jamming” the news with Jimmy Fallon on several occasions. This article originally was published on Nov. 24, 1997.

NEW YORK -- Termed “unfairly handsome” by Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Brian Williams, 38, fairly oozes with aplomb and appeal. Not only that, he’s a terrific talk show guest.

If Williams isn’t the fastest-rising star in television news, then . . . Matt Lauer is. Anointed television’s sexiest anchor by People magazine, the 39-year-old babyface has kept Today’s ratings rising and shining since replacing Bryant Gumbel in January. Not only that, he’s a terrific talk show guest.

That both men work for NBC should send seismic tremors through rival news organizations. While they search and scramble for the next century’s superstars, NBC already seems to have the future in its hip pocket. Williams and Lauer are standard-bearers for a new generation of news dude. Good-looking and glib, but also geared for the hard-drive of pressing events, they seem equally adept at bantering on late-night television or grilling a slippery politician. Williams, who was NBC’s chief White House correspondent before becoming a full-time anchor last fall, underscores this point with an assist from President Clinton.

“My wife and I went to a state dinner,” he says seconds before slipping into a dead-on impression of Clinton.”We get up to the president’s receiving line and he says, ‘I saw you on Jay Leno last night. You were good.’ I just couldn’t believe it. It’s remarkable. An hour and a half earlier, I was on his front lawn kicking him in the shorts. But he’s never stood up at a press conference and said, ‘Who are you to make that allegation? You go on late-night TV and Eric Sevareid never did, you ninny.’ “

Not that Sevareid, television’s pre-eminent commentator of the 1960s, was entirely stiff, starched and humorless. But most earlier-era TV newsmen wouldn’t have come close to making People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” list, as Lauer and Williams have. Nor could they have segued seamlessly onto a late-night talk show to trade barbs and quips with the likes of Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.

Lauer, billed as Today’s “co-anchor” in NBC press materials, questions whether that shoe fits anymore. He is interviewed an hour after wearing a Barney Rubble costume on Today’s annual Halloween show. But he also is only 15 minutes removed from doing live updates on the trial of British au pair Louise Woodward.

“I don’t think I’m expected to be the “quote-unquote anchor” anymore. I don’t know that the word has the same meaning it did 20 years ago,” Lauer says. “The role has changed. I consider myself to be more of a host. I like the word better. It means you’re going to do the cooking and fitness segments and interview the celebrities. But you’re also going to be there when the stock market declines and the manny trial verdict comes in. People are used to seeing a more well-rounded personality from guys like me, and I think that’s better. I don’t know if in this day and age you can survive as a kind of one-dimensional news anchor.”

Both NBC newsmen grew up watching and worshipping Johnny Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years before giving way to Leno in May 1992. For each, being a guest on Tonight is a fantasy fulfilled.

“The first time I was on the show, I was a little upset that I hadn’t had the chance to do it when Johnny Carson was there,” Lauer says. “If you ask me who’s the one person I want to interview right now, it’s Johnny Carson. That would have just been a mind-boggling experience if he were still doing Tonight. I probably would have wet myself and sat there in a puddle.”

In a memorable Tonight appearance last year, Williams more than held his own with fellow guests Cher and Jane Fonda. When Cher cracked that he was handsome but looked “too Republican,” Williams told her she might try being a little nicer to one of the few people who had bought her “Half Breed” album.

“I use the same set of skills I use every night on the news,” Williams says minutes after completing another edition of MSNBC’s The News With Brian Williams at the fledgling 24-hour network’s eye-popping, future-is-now building in Secaucus, NJ. “You think on your feet whether you’re interviewing a head of state or Cher is serving up some line. It’s like a high slider and you may have an eighth-of-a-second turnaround time on that stuff. And you try to kill it.”

Williams is described as the “heir apparent” to Tom Brokaw so often that he might as well have it stenciled on his forehead. But he already has an arguably better job than the veteran Nightly News anchor. His acclaimed prime-time MSNBC newscast, which airs at 8 p.m. weeknights, is repeated the following hour on the CNBC cable network. Williams also anchors the Saturday edition of Nightly News and is the No. 1 substitute on Meet the Press and Today. NBC recently signed him to a new contract that runs through 2002. By then, might the Nightly News be looking rusty, dusty?

“They are a bona fide institution over there at 30 Rock,” Williams says of NBC Studios in Manhattan. “And the Nightly News is still an enchilada-class job, as in big. But this is a fabulous job, too. And what these ‘heir apparent’ stories miss is that I quietly have my own gig over here and it’s pretty wonderful. If this was only about getting myself seen in front of as many Americans as possible, I’d be a game show host. Or I’d be hosting a syndicated magazine show (such as Inside Edition or Hard Copy) that comes on after Tom.”

He instead settles for recurring appearances on Tonight, Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the Late Late Show with Tom Snyder. He has declined invitations, however, to be a guest host on Saturday Night Live. That would be “crossing a line,” says the self-described “comedy dilettante.”

“I basically go on Leno because I can, and because it’s great fun,” Williams says. “I’m the son of an actress, a very loud Irish Catholic woman from the South Side of Chicago who at her death from cancer left behind a gene that gave me the ability to make my mouth move in front of people watching me. Not to say I’m Shecky Greene.”

Rob Burnett, executive producer of Late Show with David Letterman, says Williams and Lauer are “just perfect talk show guests. You don’t have to worry about these guys. You can ask them anything. They know how to fill up time, how to be funny, charming and witty. Dave’s favorite thing is to go out there and just talk to people without using the prepared notes. And these guys can do that.”

On Lauer’s last two Late Show appearances, Letterman has introduced him as “everybody’s favorite TV pretty boy.” This doesn’t particularly amuse Lauer, but he understands the game being played.

“He’s trying to get you to walk out there and immediately be in a combative mood with him,” Lauer says. “He does like to banter back and forth, and that’s his way of getting it going immediately. The second time he said that, I told him, ‘That’s why nobody likes you.’ And we were off and running.”

Lauer says he’s always running scared, though. Outwardly smooth and conversational, he’s inwardly twisting and churning like a taffy-making machine.

“I don’t love it,” he says. “You take a deep breath, you suck it up and you hope you don’t bomb. But in terms of being real comfortable with these appearances, if it comes off that way, it’s a miracle. I dread them. I start thinking about them two nights before. I get nervous and then I usually do a post-mortem and think I was terrible.

“Brian’s hysterical. The guy could be a stand-up comic. He’s great on those shows. I’m OK being funny spontaneously, but I don’t like the pressure of being told that in your five-minute segment you’ve gotta have five funny lines. It’s not easy. It really isn’t.”

But in today’s crowded TV news environment, it increasingly seems to be part of the job. During a recent appearance on Snyder’s show, a woman caller who had never seen Williams before told him how impressed she was with his quick wit and ability to communicate. As a result, she planned to watch his newscast every night.

“This is someone I hadn’t hit before,” Williams says. “I hadn’t arrived on her radar screen.”

Lauer says viewers “are more comfortable hearing the news from people they’d actually like to spend time with. So on these talk shows, we tell them a little bit more about ourselves by showing our personalities. Then they know we have the same hopes and fears they do. And senses of humor that can be quirky and weird sometimes.”

Don’t expect competing networks to laugh, though. Williams and Lauer give NBC a leg up on the millennium while ABC, CBS and CNN watch their incumbent Big Dippers grow grayer.

“I can’t believe I’m seeing myself on television of any kind,” Williams demurs. “This is a coveted job I have in a very tough industry. And I think I’ve been able to get here without leaving a trail of blood or enemies. Of course, some people hate me. It’s the nature of the business. But I don’t think you’d find all that many. I’ve tried to do it nicely and be respectful to the people who have helped me on the way up. I’ve had a heap of luck, really. I’ve made some good decisions here and there . . .

“I’m starting to sound like Bob Dole,” he says before easily sliding into an impression of the 1996 Republican presidential nominee.

It’s a good one, of course.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Twenty TV seasons ago: Quality series and high ratings go hand-in-hand, with the old-line broadcast networks still setting the standard

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The cast of Friends and George Clooney from the early years of ER. NBC photos

Note to readers: It’s been a while since the Big Four broadcast networks have experienced a Golden Age of television. But back during the 1994-’95 TV season, NBC set the pace for a renaissance in which quality new series such as Friends and ER meshed with the ratings tastes of the viewing public at large. We’re now in times when most of the critical darlings are the property of cable networks or Netflix. Return with us now to 20 TV seasons ago, when the broadcast networks were newly determined to stand taller. This article originally was published on April 3, 1995.

What’s this? The cream is rising to the top of the prime-time Nielsen ratings.

Formerly the stompiing grounds of savaged series such as Three’s Company, The A-Team and Dallas, today’s top 10 list is an amazing-but-true story of TV critics and viewers reaching critical mass.

We like No. 1-rated Seinfeld, and you do, too. Ditto for No. 2 Home Improvement and No. 3 ER. Of television’s 10 most popular series, only Angela Lansbury’s enduring Murder, She Wrote seems out of sync. And it’s no more than a harmless misdemeanor in even the toughest critic’s view.

“This is a great message to send to us,” says NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield. “Viewers are telling us to aim high, respect us, give us quality entertainment, and we’ll be there.”

An explosion in viewing choices and the increased targeting of 18-to-49-year-old viewers also are causing the networks to “raise the bar a bit” in prime time, says Betsy Frank of New York’s Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency. If moviemakers are “dumbing down,” television is smartening up. The “lowest common denominator” programming strategies of the past now seem as antiquated as a Dukes of Hazzard car chase.

“NBC has been targeting what they’ve always called the ‘mass with class’ audience,” says Frank, whose company brokers TV advertising time. “Everybody in effect is now going after those NBC viewers. It’s hard to say exactly how these things happen, but I think a more discerning viewer is a reality.”

Brian McAndrews, vice president in charge of ABC series, says the networks must compete harder than ever just to hold onto what they have. at the outset of the 1980s, ABC, NBC and CBS still drew 90 percent of all television viewers. Competition from cable, Fox, VCRs and hundreds of new independent stations has shrunk the network audience share to 57 percent this season.

“You have a lot more people competing harder for the same television universe,” McAndrews says. “So I think you do end up with more good shows. The audience is more sophisticated, and they’re not going to stick around as long if they don’t like something.”

NBC pushed quality in time when quality wasn’t necessarily cool. In the 1982-83 season, the network introduced Cheers, St. Elsewhere and Family Ties to an initially uninterested public. All three landed near the bottom of the ratings in a season when Nielsen’s top dogs included Dallas, Dynasty, Three’s Company, Simon & Simon, Falcon Crest, The Love Boat and The A-Team. Those seven series won a lone Emmy -- for music composition on Dallas. Cheers alone took home five Emmys that year.

NBC stuck with Cheers, Family Ties and St. Elsewhere through thin and thin. The network finally was rewarded in the 1984-85 season, when The Cosby Show burst out of the blocks at 7 p.m. Thursdays and fed massive audiences to the immediately following Family Ties and Cheers. By the 1986-87 season, these critically acclaimed series also ranked 1, 2, 3 in the prime time ratings. With Night Court and L.A. Law also on the docket, NBC promoted Thursday as the “best night of television on television.”

The network also has kept the faith on Thursdays this season with a revamped, ratings-rich lineup of critical darlings beginning with Mad About You and ending with ER. And it is having success building another tony night on Tuesdays with the transplanted Frasier and Wings and the new NewsRadio.

“In our past, when we’ve been smart and entertaining, the audience eventually has been there for us,” Littlefield says. “I also think it’s fair to say that (former NBC chairman) rant Tinker’s words of the ‘80s are still rattling around: ‘First be best, then be first.’ “

ABC has been a class act this season, too, with Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire, NYPD Blue and Roseanne holding down spots in Nielsen’s top 10. It’s a marked change from the 1980s, when ABC relied heavily on programming produced by Aaron Spelling.

The Dallas native’s production company had an exclusive contract with the network, and in some seasons filled one-third of its prime time schedule. Spelling’s hits invariably were under heavy fire from TV critics, some of whom dubbed ABC the Aaron Broadcasting Company. Dynasty, The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, Hotel, Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island, T.J. Hooker and the like were described as “mind candy” by Spelling himself.

In 1986, ABC’s new entertainment president, Brandon Stoddard, began to wean the network away from Spelling and toward a more sophisticated brand of series epitomized by Moonlighting. ABC is without any Spelling series at the moment, but McAndrews says that’s not by choice in light of the producer’s recent success on Fox with Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place.

“I think Aaron has done some very god work,” McAndrews says. “We don’t control what the critics write, and we don’t program for the critics. We program for the adult 18-to-49-year-old audience. There was certainly no strategic shift here away from Aaron Spelling. We’re developing something with him right now (the Fort Lauderdale-based Pier 6).

McAndrews notes that one of this season’s most critically acclaimed series, ABC’s My So-Called Life, was a ratings disaster on Thursdays at 7 p.m. True enough, although many viewers weren’t opting for junk instead of this cutting-edge, coming-of-age drama. They instead were tuning to NBC’s Mad About You.

Another high-quality series, CBS’ Picket Fences, also continues to struggle in the ratings. But that’s in part because it’s scheduled against NBC’s equally worthy Homicide: Life on the Street. CBS’ stellar Chicago Hope, buried early in the season opposite ER, has since found an appreciative audience at 9 p.m. Mondays, where it regularly prevails in the ratings. Another quality drama, NBC’s Law and Order, is enjoying its highest ratings ever in its fifth season.

“I don’t think viewers are necessarily brighter,” Frank says. “But with all these viewing choices, I do think they’re most selective. You come to realize that you can’t watch everything. So viewers have become more critical of what they watch.”

McAndrews says the success of adult-oriented sitcoms at 7 p.m. -- notably NBC’s Wings and Mad About You -- is turning ABC away from the more simple-minded comedy in “kid-driven” shows such as Full House and Growing Pains. Last week, the network moved Roseanne from 8 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights as part of a six-week experiment.

“Rightly or wrongly, since those shows (Roseanne, Mad About You, etc.) appeal more to adults, I think they appeal more to television critics, too,” McAndrews says. “Our strategy in the past has been to put very strong kid-driven series with adults in them at 7 o’clock and then attract both a kid and an adult audience. But we can’t take the adults for granted anymore. With two TVs in a house, we might lose them.”

Action shows replete with gunfire and car chases also are in virtual eclipse on network television. Concerns about violence and the heavier financial costs of action scenes have led to more cerebral, character-driven, ensemble dramas.

“The word ‘distinctive’ comes to mind,” NBC’s Littlefield says. “You can’t just throw something on the air as a place-saver anymore. Now when we listen to an idea, we asks ourselves whether it qualifies for network television or whether you can find it somewhere else on the dial. And if you can find it somewhere else, we move on.”

The result this season has been a bountiful harvest of Emmy-friendly comedies and dramas. And a welcome meeting of the minds between critics who get the first say and viewers who make the final calls.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Verily, Jon Voight once set sail as NBC's Noah


Jon Voight fought off pirates at sea in NBC’s Noah’s Ark.

Note to readers: The ballyhooed March 28th big-screen release of Noah stars Russell Crowe in the title role. But other productions of biblical proportions set sail earlier, including NBC’s 1999 Noah’s Ark miniseries starring Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen. It definitely took a few liberties. Here’s the review, originally published on May 2, 1999.

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And so it is written . . .

“For dramatic effect, we have taken poetic license with some of the events of the mighty epic of Noah and the flood.”

And so it comes to pass.

NBC’s four-hour Noah’s Ark all but capsizes from the extreme liberties taken in pursuit of mainstream entertainment. Biblical scholars might be surprised, for instance, to see ugly, filthy pirates attacking the ark early in Part 2. This apparently is the little-known Waterworld portion of the Good Book. Whatever floats your boat.

Ark, starring Jon Voight as stoic Noah, also seems intent on replicating elements of Mortal Kombat, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Alamo, Animal House and even Titanic (watch out for that giant rock!).

Other times this seems to be the Old Testament according to Monty Python. The overall result is a loopy, crazily crafted yet beautifully produced lark. Most of the special effects are splendid, some considerably less so. You can see the money on the screen throughout this lavish production.

But hey, kids, try telling your Sunday school teacher that Noah and his brood encountered a colorful peddler (James Coburn) aboard a pedal-powered mini-boat.

“I’m running a special this week,” he says before selling them a variety of accessories, including a funny little hat for one of the ark’s two resident penguins.

Then again, all of this could have happened. Or as executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. (Merlin, Gulliver’s Travels) said in a recent interview: “A lot of things are unsaid in the Bible. The whole world is unsaid. So it leaves a lot to the imagination and you’re pretty much free to do anything you want with it if you don’t steer the wrong way.”

Ark keeps sideswiping, though, with its laughable efforts to humanize and adventure-ize the story. Even God, voiced by Voight, sometimes sounds like a Catskills comic. Hear the Almighty get off a one-liner after informing Noah that he intends to sink his ark and make a “clean sweep” of the ungrateful human race.

“It was a difficult decision,” He says. “I would have liked a second opinion, but who could I ask?” Hi-yo!

Filmed in Australia, with some of the animal footage shot at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas, Ark also features Mary Steenburgen as Noah’s supportive wife, Naamah, and F. Murray Abraham as rambunctious Lot. His kvetching, unnamed wife, played by Carol Kane, thankfully is fated to be a pillar of salt early in Part 1.

It’s her punishment for ignoring God’s instructions and looking back on his firebolt-powered demolition of Sodom and Gomorrah. Her last words -- “I want some fun!” -- foreshadowed Cyndi Lauper’s clarion call of the 1980s. All lives apparently serve some purpose.

The Bible says -- but what does it know? -- that Sodom and Gomorrah became toast long after God commanded Noah to build his ark. On NBC, the events are reversed. Sayeth Halmi: “We had to do Noah’s Ark in an imaginative way and put the point through that God was really mad at the world and the people. And obviously Sodom and Gomorrah was the time in the Bible when he should have been the maddest. And so we combined the two stories.”

Pish tush. At least Adam and Eve aren’t interjected.

Noah, earnestly played by Voight, is first seen witnessing a bloody, muddy battle between Sodomites and Gomorrahns. It looks more like a self-contained tournament, though, with townies cheering on their favorites as though they were video game combatants.

Noah is repulsed, and God has seen enough, thank you. He declares Noah His “chosen one” and orders him to vacate Sodom, located adjacent to Gomorrah, before the biblical twin cities are torched from on high.

Noah, Namaah and their soon-to-be-strapping sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth (Mark Bazeley, Alexis Denisof, Jonathan Cake), make a long journey to verdant Gerar, where they take up farming. The locals treat them as outcasts, which is OK until they decide to offer Ham’s girlfriend, Ruth (Sidney Poitier’s daughter, Sydney Poitier), as a virginal sacrifice to the pagan rain god Mole. It’s Shem, Ham and Japheth to the rescue, with assists from Noah, a frying pan-wielding Naamah and, of course, God.

“Ya ha, missed me,” says one of the infidels before he’s struck blind. Wah-wah-wah.

It’s become high time for the giant ark to take shape. Noah’s skeptical about constructing a sailing vessel that’s 500 feet long, 83 feet wide and 50 feet high. But the Creator is bullish. “I think big,” He proclaims. “I made the world in six days.”

That God, what a card.

During construction, Lot returns. He’s been running with a bad crowd, but still has a semblance of goodness. When a crumbum exhorts his cohorts to rape and pillage, Lot stabs him in the gut.

“I didn’t expect that,” he says. “I was tricked. You caught me with my britches down. I want to tell you something with my last dying breath.”

Instead, he expires comically during one of Ark’s veers into Monty Python territory.

There’s much, much more, including an apparent TV movie first when a koala bear gently defecates aboard the ark while being held by Shem’s girlfriend, Miriam (Sonya Walger). The actors maintain straight faces, which should qualify them for Emmys.

Much of this is very picturesque, though. And the kiddies surely will enjoy seeing all the animals troop aboard before later helping Noah and company scare off the mean pirates with help from a giant funnel cloud.

For these reasons and many more, Noah’s Ark seems destined to be a goofy, camp classic in league with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Still, if a few well-placed lightning bolts hit the homes of certain actors and producers, we’ll have a pretty fair idea where they came from.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Rewinding to 1995 pre-Hugh Grant times in which Leno had momentum but hadn't yet caught Letterman


Jay and Johnny back when they seemed to enjoy one another.

Note to readers: It was mid-March, 1995, just a few months before Jay Leno exploded his Tonight Show ratings by asking Hugh Grant, “What the hell were you thinking?”

At the time of this interview, though, Leno was steadily gaining on CBS’
Late Show with David Letterman, but hadn’t yet surpassed it. I talked to an accommodating Leno in his office on NBC’s Burbank lot after attending the previous night’s show. Now we’re nearing the night -- Thursday, Feb. 6th -- when he’ll be leaving Tonight behind for a second time, again not by choice. Here’s the way it was nearly 19 years ago. (This article was first published on April 2, 1995.)

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BURBANK, Calif. -- Early to bed -- 3 a.m. -- and early to rise -- 7:30 a.m. -- Jay Leno is in his smallish NBC office by 8:15 a.m. on most weekdays.

The latter-day hardest-working man in show business is soon digesting the first batch of some 250 to 300 jokes submitted for his latest Tonight Show monologue. A new pageful arrives every five minutes during our midmorning interview. Twenty-some jokes will make the cut.

“My credo, that nobody here agrees with, is that anybody can have a life, but careers are hard to come by,” Leno says. “You can’t spend time with your family! You can’t do anything! You just make jokes all day. That’s what you do. And if people aren’t willing to do that . . .”

His voice trails off, but don’t get the idea that Leno is a maniacal taskmaster. “If people aren’t willing to do that” basically refers to himself. At age 44, he is married without children and unswervingly single-minded about what it takes to keep hitting in the big leagues. Your “tunnel vision” must be 20/20. You can’t waste a minute of your time. In the end, David Letterman’s worst enemy may be Jay Leno’s sheer determination to be the last guy standing.

“You always have to be in the mode of writing down the ad-lib or the joke,” he says. “You listen to music, you watch CNN and you say, ‘Ah, there’s a joke.’ “

The Tonight Show, which Leno inherited from Johnny Carson on May 25, 1992, lately has been coming closer to getting the last laugh on CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman. The ratings gap between the two programs shrank to seven-tenths of a point during the February “sweeps.” In the May 1994 sweeps, Tonight trailed Late Show by 1.3 points. And in their first week of head-to-head competition -- Aug. 30-Sept. 3, 1993 -- Leno emerged a badly beaten four points behind Late Show.

Tonight’s comeback is somewhat illusory. Leno’s ratings have remained in place while Letterman’s are slowly sliding south. NBC’s resurgence in prime-time this season lends a firm helping hand. Leno is being promoted during hot new shows such as ER and Friends. He also is much more comfortable on a new, intimate Tonight set that bears little resemblance to Johnny’s old digs. The makeover, on Sept. 27, coincided with NBC’s unexpectedly strong liftoff last fall. Meanwhile, CBS has dropped from first to third place in the prime-time ratings. Anyone who doesn’t know that hasn’t been watching Late Show of late. Many of Letterman’s monologues, even when he hosted on Oscar night, include a jab at his downtrodden employer.

“We’re doing fine. Actually, we’re doing terrific,” Leno says. “Obviously the NBC prime-time lineup has improved, and that’s helped us. But you really kind of stand on your own for the most part. If you don’t do a good show, people don’t watch.”

Early on, he didn’t blame them for tuning out Tonight.

“The first year of our show we made some huge mistakes,” Leno says. “And I was just kind of standing around watching the world go by and thinking, ‘Well, all right, these people know what they’re doing.’ And that was not the case.

“The first six months was Tonight Show by committee. The network would say, ‘OK, we want to keep Johnny’s audience, and we want to bring in new people. Why don’t you get your hair cut this way and wear this kind of suit? Consequently, the show kind of lost its edge. And I realized that suddenly I was getting blasted for not being a very good comedian when I always got really good write-ups for doing clever material. I thought, ‘Well, what am I doing wrong?’ “

He reacted by dumping his longtime friend, Helen Kushnick, who was producing the new Tonight. Her abrasiveness reportedly had split the show’s staff into warring camps.

“There was a lot of yelling and screaming going on,” Leno confirms. “I realized we were at the point where even people who worked on the show didn’t mind the show going down if it brought their enemies down, too. I said, ‘Let’s just put an end to that right now.’ Everybody seems to get along real good now. We don’t have those leaks that go out into the press. You know, little back-stabbing things. Because now everybody feels they’re a part of the show. You try to make it a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.”

Tonight’s flailings and failings dovetailed with NBC’s indecisiveness on whether to replace Leno with the discontented Letterman, who had outgrown his Late Night program. NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield, who championed Leno and prevailed, endured the slings and arrows of those who thought he was nuts. He is feeling much better these days.

“I don’t want to go out there and gloat, but you make your own conclusion as to what kind of tail wind the Oscars gave Dave,” Littlefield says from his car phone. “Jay is really focused, and he’s having a lot of fun. Take the late-night challenge. Watch the shows back to back and tell me who’s giving the audience the best entertainment. We feel very good about the product right now.”

Debbie Vickers, who worked on Carson’s Tonight Show for 12 years, replaced Kushnick as producer in September 1992. She is not so much a show doctor as a holistic healer.

“I wish we did have a vision, if visions are what you’re supposed to have,” she says. “The one thing that we’ve tried to do is just make the show more free-flowing. More comedy, looser interviews and let Jay drive the boat a little more. He needs to go and do what he wants, and we’ll follow him. It takes time. It is slow to maneuver the ship.”


Leno and his first Tonight Show successor, Conan O’Brien.

The ship’s captain is in his unvarying civilian uniform on this drizzly March morning.

“I always wear the same stuff,” Leno says. Namely, that’s jeans and a blue denim work shirt unbuttoned to the breastbone. His lone non-show business passion -- motorcycles -- is represented by two miniature choppers on his office windowsill. He laughs easily and frequently uses the phrase “It makes me laugh.” Sources of amusement range from his cronies -- who convene on work nights at his house to bounce jokes off one another -- to a “harried laptop kind of guy” who asked him on an airplane, “Are those girls really naked in those Prell commercials?”

Tonight tapings usually begin at 5 p.m. Los Angeles time. Leno heads for home at about 7:30 p.m. Preparation for the next night’s show begins with a kitchen table joke-around that generally adjourns between 2 and 3 a.m. Mavis, his wife of 15 years, mostly comes into the picture on weekends and road trips.

“Saturday night is sort of date night,” he says. “We go to a restaurant. Sometimes Friday night, too. She really likes to travel. I don’t like it. So if I go on the road, she always comes along. So whatever town you go to, she can go crazy and have a good time. So we have a lot of fun.”

The public’s view of quintessential “show business life” -- wild parties, wilder spending -- is science fiction to Leno. Not that there aren’t temptations.

“I mean, it’s fun to do a show like this and have these attractive women come out, and you go, ‘Ooooh!’ Like Tori Spelling comes on the other night. Did you see that skirt she had on? (During a commercial break) she said, ‘You know, I’m not wearing any underwear.’ I said, ‘Really.’ And that’s about as far as it goes. In your mind you can do whatever you want. But if you take it any further than that, you’re dead! You’re a dead man! You’re screwed! So you just learn to keep things at a distance and have a good time. People think it’s a lot of pressure. I supposed it is. But it’s piecemeal.”

Leno’s first Tonight appearance, as a guest on the March 2, 1977 show, came after years of failed attempts.

“I finally asked someone why I couldn’t get on,” he recalls. “And I was told, ‘Well, you’re not very good.’ “

It’s still as simple as that, he says.

“When I first took over the show, a comedian who wasn’t very good told me he never could get on with Johnny, but now he’d be able to and this would be great. I told him, ‘Why is it great? You have to get better first. You can’t come on just because I have the show. You have to come on because you’re good enough to be on the show.’

“I have many friends in show business. But I don’t expect them to come on this program because they’re my friend. I expect them to come on because the show is good and they want to come on. And they look at the ratings, and they see that this show can help them sell whatever it is they’re trying to sell.”


Leno and second Tonight Show successor, Jimmy Fallon.

Leno in turns sells himself both off- and on-camera. Unlike Letterman or Carson, he gladly poses for pictures and signs autographs before and after Tonight tapings. While warming up the audience for the March 9 show, he even agreed to ask Paul Reiser to autograph a fan’s copy of his bestselling book, Couplehood. Mission accomplished during a commercial break.

“That doesn’t make him a bad guy!” Leno exclaims when told of Letterman’s comparatively impersonal hellos and goodbyes at Late Show tapings. Mingling with fans is “something you kind of learn from the country-Western stars,” he says. “They’re real good at that. And I come from a real small town (he was born in Rochelle, NY and raised in Andover, MD). Famous people hardly ever came there. And when they did, it was like a huge deal.”

Win or lose the late-night wars, Leno says he’ll roll with the punches in the press or otherwise.

“You’d go nuts if you hold grudges. You’d go batty!” he says. “I know so many people who just get eaten up by bitterness and anger.”

He compares media coverage of late-night television to the ups and downs of “big-time wrestling.”

“I don’t complain about it. I don’t think, ‘Oh, they’re being terribly unfair.’ I’m terribly unfair to people every night of the week during the monologue. The press gives you a little jab. So what? You have good guy-bad guy. They beat you up for a while. And then it turns around and then they beat up the other guy.”

At long last, it might be the other guy’s turn.

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Twenty years removed, network news luminaries recall TV's impact and coming of age on the day JFK died

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Dan Rather and the late Peter Jennings were in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Rather later was a key player in CBS News specials that investigated whether Lee Harvey Oswald could have acted alone.

Note to readers: On the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in 1983, The Dallas Morning News published a 78-page commemorative magazine. My contribution was headlined “The Emergence of Television News: How assassination coverage moved TV into a new era.” I interviewed Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Robert MacNeil, John Chancellor and Edwin Newman for the piece. Only Rather and MacNeil have survived until the 50th anniversary of that dark day.

The entire magazine was heavily edited to ensure accuracy and a very matter-of-fact approach. So that’s how this reads. But these interviews still resonate -- for me at least. And 30 years later, they, too, have become part of the historical record.

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CBS’s Walter Cronkite was the first television newsman to break the news.

At 12:40 p.m. (Dallas time), he interrupted the soap opera As the World Turns with a bulletin that President John F. Kennedy had been “seriously wounded” in Dallas.

ABC followed at 12:42, while CBS resumed its soap for seven minutes. At 12:46, NBC caught up with Don Pardo, now the announcer for the network’s Saturday Night Live, telling viewers that Kennedy had been rushed to an emergency room.

Within an hour, the White House had announced Kennedy’s death and the three commercial networks had begun their marathon stretches of commercial-free coverage.

By the time regularly scheduled programming resumed on Tuesday, Nov. 26, NBC had broadcast 71 hours of assassination coverage, the last 41 hours and 18 minutes of which was continuous. ABC broadcast 60 hours, and CBS, 55.

Although the networks had lost a combined total of about $40 million in commercial revenues in four days, they had gained immeasurable respect.

The verdict was almost unanimous. Television news had, in the words of historian Theodore H. White, “achieved greatness by reporting true drama with clarity, good taste and responsibility in a fashion that stabilized a nation in emotional shock and on the verge of hysteria.”

Even before the assassination, television news showed signs of having come of age.

In early fall 1963, for the first time, Americans chose television over newspapers and radio as their primary news source, according to a Roper Organization survey commissioned by the Television Information Office.

Two months before Kennedy was assassinated, CBS became the first commercial network to expand its nightly news broadcast from 15 minutes to a half hour. The opening story on the new CBS Evening News was Cronkite’s exclusive interview with Kennedy.

On the day of the president’s death, a shaken Cronkite couldn’t stop his voice from catching after informing the country that Kennedy was dead. Later that night, in a short commentary that aired just before midnight Dallas time, one of his principal competitors, NBC anchor Chet Huntley, spoke of “pockets of hatred in our country, areas and communities where the disease is permitted or encouraged.”

Huntley, Frank McGee and Bill Ryan took turns anchoring NBC’s breaking news coverage of the assassination. ABC’s anchors were Ron Cochran and Ed Silverman, whose names have been largely forgotten.

Many of today’s television viewers get their news from three men who reported from Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963: Dan Rather, who replaced Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News on March 9, 1981; Peter Jennings, who succeeded the late Frank Reynolds this summer as anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight; and Robert (Robin) MacNeil, co-anchor of public television’s MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour.

John Chancellor, resident commentator on the NBC Nightly News, and Edwin Newman, longtime NBC anchor-reporter, also played important roles in their networks’ assassination coverage.


Dan Rather was the 32-year-old chief of CBS’s New Orleans bureau at the time of the assassination.

Rather, a native of Wharton, Texas, who had grown up in Houston, was coordinating the coverage of Kennedy’s Texas trip. When the shots were fired at the motorcade, Rather was stationed along the route. After the presidential limousine sped past him, he raced back to CBS affiliate KRLD-TV (now KDFW) and took charge of the network’s coverage from Dallas.

A month later, CBS sent Rather to Washington to cover the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“It was a concentrated maturing process for me,” says Rather. He describes the immediate aftermath of the assassination as an “extended blur” during which he kept his emotions in check and strove to match the resiliency of a boxer.

“A professional fighter,” he says, “can go in there and take punch after punch and not show pain, and do the job at hand. Every reporter prays to God, I think, to get a world-class story just once . . . and you pray that you’re at your very best on it. That’s the sense in which I was lucky. It’s difficult to talk to anybody about this who’s not a reporter -- because it sounds terrible -- but I never expect to have a bigger story than the Kennedy assassination. How can you?

“I do think that television news was different after that,” he adds. “After that day -- and forever more -- broadcast journalism operated with a somewhat higher sense of purpose and with more confidence. Not only did our friends in print doubt that television could do it, but I think we doubted it ourselves.

“After the assassination, a lot of people in print felt that television could do it.”

Until the Kennedy assassination, radio seemed to be the medium that “strengthened the bonds of community” during a crisis, Rather says.

“Television was beginning to do some of that, but it passed from adolescence to adulthood during the assassination period,” he says. “There were these constant images of who and what we are as people. That’s something that television is very good at. But I’m not sure that before November 22nd we realized how well we could do that, or how important it was to do that. The shots of Washington during the funeral, the riderless horse -- these things just jumped off the screen at you.”
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TV news stalwarts John Chancellor, Edwin Newman, Robert MacNeil.

Robert MacNeil, a 32-year-old correspondent with NBC News at the time, made the official announcement of Kennedy’s death during the network’s first hour of coverage.

“I think the thing that impressed me,” he says today, “was how careful everybody was to be absolutely sure of what they were talking about and not to just sort of throw it all out there.

“When Reagan was shot, there were reports out of the hospital that were just grossly inaccurate. In some cases, they were prepared to go with just about any rumor.

“I don’t think you’re ever hurt by being conservative, because the American public isn’t interested in whether CBS had it two minutes before NBC. What’s important is the event and whether you can rely on the information.”

MacNeil heard the shots that killed Kennedy. He was riding in the first of two press buses following the dignitaries’ limousines. His first dispatches for NBC were filed from the Texas School Book Depository, which had the nearest telephone.

“The dominant emotion was, ‘My God, what a story!’ “ MacNeil says. “It wasn’t until about three days later that my own sort of personal feeling about what had happened really caught up with me. Then, when I got back to Washington, I was very depressed. It really cast me down. The assassination ended all our innocence about a lot of things, and it created the first suspicions about whether the government was telling us the truth. It was much easier to believe everything before Kennedy was assassinated.

“I think television provided a wonderful sense of national unity and catharsis,” he says, referring to the assassination coverage. “It fed the insatiable appetite of the nation and the world that weekend. It provided a kind of eloquent wake during a time of fantastic events. Most of them didn’t need to have very much said about them. They just needed to be shown.”


Peter Jennings, like MacNeil, a native of Canada, was a 25-year-old reporter with the Canadian Television Network when he heard the startling news over the public address system at the Toronto airport. Without checking with his boss, he caught the first available flight to Dallas and began telephoning dispatches to the network. Jennings’ audio reports were accompanied by wire service photos taken in Dallas. He stayed in the city for a day before catching another flight to Washington to cover Kennedy’s funeral.

“I did not have any really weak moment until the funeral was over,” Jennings says. “I went back to my hotel and then I just sat on my bed and cried.”

In the 20 years since Kennedy’s death, Jennings has been around the world covering wars and other assassinations. His experiences have diminished the impact of his first day in Dallas.

“It’s probably going to sound very pompous,” he says, “but I have been witness to so much history over the years. It was a stunning moment to have been there in Dallas, but there’s just been so much more. I’ve covered seven wars; I have seen countless people die and governments change. The thing I remember most about that time is the strength of the nation. The nation gathered itself up and proceeded.”


NBC’s Edwin Newman, then 44, was having lunch in New York the day Kennedy was slain. He heard the news from a CBS correspondent, who joined him in the race back to their respective offices. After anchoring NBC’s radio coverage for several hours, Newman was told he would be going to Dallas. He wanted to change clothes first because he was wearing a light-gray plaid suit “that just wasn’t appropriate.” His supervisor said there was no time.

During the chartered bus ride to the airport, Newman learned that Kennedy’s body was being flown to Washington. That suddenly became the reporter’s destination.

“One of the things that has been said, with some justice, is that television brought the country together,” Newman says. “I think there was a sense of gratitude at the time that probably would not be present now, because it would be taken for granted that we ought to be able to do these things. We did demonstrate that we could cover it -- cover it with some dignity, competence and thoughtfulness. It was a great national injury, a great humiliation.”

The most jarring image was Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting, which NBC captured live with correspondent Tom Pettit shouting, “There is absolutely panic! Pandemonium has broken out!”

At the time Newman was at Dulles International Airport in Washington interviewing foreign dignitaries arriving for Kennedy’s funeral.

“Suddenly, you have this thing erupt,” he says, “when you’re putting microphones in the faces of presidents and prime ministers. That was extraordinary. There was a feeling that you were out of touch with reality.

“There were people during that time who were moved to tears on the air,” he says. “I was not one of them. You’re detached from the event, but, at the same time, you’re involved in it. How far do you go in joining in the national mourning or in promoting it, in a sense?”


John Chancellor was a 36-year-old NBC correspondent in Bonn, West Germany, on the day Kennedy died. He remembers hearing “an enormous clap of thunder” shortly after the Associated Press reported the death.

“A lot of us thought the war had started,” he recalls. “For an hour or so, it was very scary.”

After reporting West Germany’s reactions to the assassination, Chancellor decided he wanted to return home.

“You felt that you had discovered some kind of flaw -- or some kind of cancer -- in the United States,” he says. “I just felt that there was something more than my career that was tugging at me, making me want to go home.”

Nine months later, NBC granted his request. Upon returning, Chancellor made a point to watch some of the powerful television work he had missed while in West Germany. “I watched some of the coverage of the funeral, and it was just majestic,” he says. “I’d never thought of this, but it was an interesting test of television’s ability to cover a very complicated story and to do it with taste.”

In November a year later, Chancellor returned to Bonn to prepare a retrospective that will be broadcast Nov. 22nd during the Today program’s two-hour remembrance of Kennedy.

“I’m sorry for the people of Dallas,” Chancellor says. “I know what they’re going to go through. A lot of Dallasites will say, ‘Oh my God, why do you have to dredge that up again?’ But that’s wrong, because Dallas simply happened to be the stage on which this drama occurred.”

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