Bill Carter's 1994 bestseller The Late Shift covered the backstage machinations that led to Jay Leno taking over The Tonight Show and David Letterman moving to CBS, but it was really a book about the loss of institutional memory at the big media outlets. Carter pieced together what years of buyouts, mergers, and leadership shuffles had done to the decision-making process at NBC, and how the age of powerful entertainment moguls and irreplaceable TV stars was coming to an end. The situation has become direr as of Desperate Networks, Carter's 10-years-later pulse-check of the broadcast television giants. The closest the book comes to a heroic protagonist is Les Moonves, who leads CBS to ratings gold with Survivor and CSI while his counterparts either cling to dying old shows, or hope they can score quick hits on the cheap. But even Moonves has to be led to success by dogged underlings and visionary producers, who work around his initial resistance to their million-dollar ideas.
Without any one personality or concept to focus on, Desperate Networks is a little shapeless. Carter writes with an insider's insight about a handful of compelling stories, including NBC's short-sighted attempt to hold onto its ratings lead with "super-sized" episodes of fading hits like Friends, ABC's fitful development of the future smashes Lost and Desperate Housewives, and Fox's happily accidental graduation from trashy reality specials to American Idol. But Carter also gets sidetracked by yet another trip into late-night TV and the nightly news, and the non-primetime material feels tacked-on.
Or maybe the problem is that Carter doesn't finish his thought. Like The Late Shift, Carter's new book ends with the great ratings race still far from decided, and it barely considers the dilemma of how iPods and TiVos will affect the future of media revenue and the very concept of a "hit show." Still, as with The Late Shift, Carter does capture the perverse instability of old media, where years of hemming and hawing over projects ends in a furious rush to air. If this keeps up, Carter will check back in a decade and find that network television has all but disappeared.