Conan O'Brien, NBC close to divorce settlement; Leno headed back home
After a week of caustic jokes, jawboning and behind-the-scenes negotiations, "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien is splitting from NBC to make room for the return of Jay Leno to late-night TV.
An announcement could come as early as Saturday and will settle, at least in public, the acrimonious maneuvering among the comedians and their respective camps and the network that resulted from NBC Universal's decision to shift Leno from 10 p.m. back to his late-night slot, which O'Brien has occupied for the last seven months.
O'Brien, who was the fifth host of the long-running program, could make his final appearance on "The Tonight Show" on Friday. Leno's 10 p.m. show will end Thursday, Feb. 11, the night before the Olympics begin. Although O'Brien still had 2 1/2 years remaining on his estimated $36-million deal, he soon will be free to go elsewhere.
O'Brien's exit package will be determined in part by how long it takes him to find another job. The range of payout for O'Brien is somewhere between $25 million and $35 million, people close to the network said. The longer O'Brien is off the air, the more money he could get.The settlement comes at the end of a tumultuous week that left the reputations and images of NBC, Leno and O'Brien in tatters -- and a broken legacy for Jeff Zucker, the NBC Universal chief executive who engineered and championed the deal to give Leno his own prime-time show.
The sniping took place on the air and in print. Leno joked that NBC stood for "Never Believe your Contract." O'Brien took shots at Leno and NBC. Dick Ebersol, the head of NBC Sports, called O'Brien "chicken-hearted." Talk show hosts on rival networks got into the act as well: ABC's Jimmy Kimmel dressed up as Jay Leno, and even David Letterman, who famously lost out to Leno in 1993 during the last messy late-night showdown, has had a field day mocking NBC and Zucker.
Last week NBC executives told O'Brien they planned to push his "Tonight Show" back 30 minutes to begin at 12:05 a.m. to make way for Leno's return to his original late-night time period. Leno's 10 p.m. show, which launched in September, had lackluster ratings and hurt the network's affiliates, which need big numbers to lead in to their late local newscasts.
NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin said this week that the situation was increasingly untenable for the network and its affiliates, so NBC had to make a change. The unraveling of the network's late-night lineup comes as its parent company, General Electric Co., is selling majority control of NBC Universal to cable giant Comcast Corp. O'Brien also struggled against CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman."
Gaspin and others at NBC had hoped that O'Brien would accept NBC's compromise and begin his show at 12:05 a.m. But O'Brien, in a public letter, refused. He said the move would seriously damage the "Tonight Show," saying, "for 60 years, the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news."
Since then, O'Brien's camp and NBC executives have been scrutinizing the talk show host's contracts with NBC to come up with leverage and a settlement. There have been debates over whether O'Brien's contract guaranteed that "The Tonight Show" would always run at 11:35 p.m., and over just how long NBC could sideline him to keep him off a competing network.
With O'Brien free of NBC, speculation will turn to where he will go next. Fox, where O'Brien once worked as a writer on "The Simpsons," hasn't been shy about expressing an interest in the comedian and writer. There are other ties, too: Kevin Reilly, the president of entertainment for Fox, used to work at NBC. Reilly got pushed out by Zucker and has professed to be a big fan of O'Brien's.
However, wanting O'Brien and getting him are two different things.
The Fox affiliates would need to be persuaded to give up a lucrative 11 p.m. time period to make room for O'Brien. Even inside Fox's parent company, News Corp., there is debate over how profitable it would be to mount a late-night comedy and talk show, especially one that would compete for the same pool of advertisers. More problematic, costly contracts for reruns on Fox's TV stations would need to be settled out, possibly triggering write-offs at a time when their margins are already strained. Then there are the millions Fox would have to spend not only on O'Brien, but also on staff, a studio and marketing.
Walt Disney Co.'s ABC has already said it is not interested in O'Brien. A cable network could step up to the plate for him, but the paycheck would be smaller. However, some of the biggest cable networks, such as USA and Bravo, happen to be owned by NBC Universal, so they can probably be ruled out as future homes for O'Brien. Comedy Central already has Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Pay channel HBO is not interested in getting into the daily talk show game. But there's always Showtime and Starz, the latter of which wants to be a bigger Hollywood player.
Leno, meanwhile, will face the challenge of getting back the viewers in late night that O'Brien lost. Leno had routinely beaten CBS's Letterman in viewers and key demographics. Letterman now beats Conan in viewers and is tied in adults 18-49. O'Brien was being hurt by a poor audience lead-in from NBC's prime time lineup.
And for viewers who missed NBC's former 10 p.m. lineup of dramas, a tonic is on the way.
On Thursday the network announced a new prime-time schedule that will begin in March, after the Winter Olympics. At 10 p.m., episodes of "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "Dateline" and the new programs "Parenthood" and Jerry Seinfeld's "The Marriage Ref" will replace "The Jay Leno Show."
-- Meg James and Joe Flint
Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images