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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

Related posts:

Conan O'Brien's post-NBC options

Fox throws gasoline on Conan O'Brien fire.

Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (39)

So Conan refused 12:05, saying, "for 60 years, the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news."
And he's right, it still will...

Only NBC, the No Believable Contract Network would try to spin their own debacle as Conan O'Brien's fault. Their history of disrespect with both Johnny Carson and David Letterman just shows the network suits have problem giving Conan's audience the proverbial finger by taking his time slot away. The Tonight Show is not a 12:05 show-not now and not in the future-so Jay can just enjoy his lame-duck status without me!

Imagine if Carson had told Leno he would retire. Only to move his show to the hour ahead of Leno. I doubt the Tonight Show with Leno would have survived. The Execs. at NBC. should have either kept Leno in his original place or forced home out completely.

Leno said five years ago that no one other than Johnny Carson should host the Tonight Show in their 60s so I guess even Leno doesn't think he deserved to return.

So, which NBC execs will be fired over this costly, embarrassing fiasco? Any of them??

Jay has become the dictator of NBC.
He talks (SCREAMS) down to the audience.
Every day he looks more like a cross
between a weasle and a hyena.
He is the backstabber everyone wishes
to avoid in any work situation.
NBC= No Body Cares.

This Conan O'Brien fiasco reminds us just how horribly wrong executives can be. Remember the Edsel and "new" Coke?

Hey Freelols.com - Are you dumb or something? Of course it will come after the news B/C Conan decided it should have been kept that way, instead of being marginalized into a "Tonight Show II" act.

But hey I don't see Leno ever standing up to any principles as long as he gets his way. You and Leno both sound like toolbags.

I do not buy it that there needs to be strong programming at 10pm, viewers following the 11pm news THEN they will watch a late night show. I alrady know what I want to watch. I turn my TV ON at 11:30 so I can watch Letterman & then Ferguson. Conan is NOT funny & he is scary to look at.

NBC is making a big nistake, wherever Conan goes the Coco lovers will follow! Jay could've done the classy thing and step down and leave the Tonight Show to its rightful succesor.

No, the offer was to move "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" back to 12:05, where it would follow "The Jay Leno Show" at 11:35, hence Conan's comment.

Hey Mr Ebersol, why is he chicken hearted? Because he stood up to the dirty dealing NBC? I guess you don't like it when somebody calls you and your boys out. You know, Bud, there are reasons your network has gone into the tank. It's because you've got egotistical buffoons calling the shots. Well, the 30 million dollar chicken just came home to roost, on your dimes. HA HA HA !

NBC can go to hell. Conan deserves better from NBC (and Leno). Let's hope people boycott the "new" Tonight Show.

I'm glad that NBC made the Tonight-show-in-waiting deal so that they could keep Conan.

That worked out really well.

Leno is not funny unless you're over 60.

I think of Conan highly and recognize his long-standing regard for The Tonight Show. But I don't think the show's historic baggage and fogie audience were doing Conan any favors. And, frankly I was having trouble picturing Conan hosting way back circa 2006 or so when the Leno-leaving announcement was first made. On the flip side, Conan is brilliant and upstart kids and smart people in general love him. I see him potentially coming back stronger than he ever was in the past. The Tonight Show debacle gives him grounds to say: look a**holes let's do an f'ing show for the people on this planet who actually dig me, not Carson/Leno's people: you know Ma and Pa Chestnut in Pigsknuckle.

Jay Leno has no class, but plenty of ego. I used to watch his show once in awhile, but I'll never watch it again. I think he's just been shameful. He never gave Conan a chance to make the show his own, just cut him off at the knees. He's as phony as Tiger Woods.

Who really cares if conan returns to nbc???? Bye, next...

Conan will find a new broadcast home soon enough. One thing Conan O'Brien and the late Johnny Carson shared is class, something Jay Leno will never know especially with executive meat-heads like Zucker arranging the deck chairs on NBC Titanic - in which General Electric played a staring role. Now it looks like it will be left to Comcast to clean up this mess - that is until Comcast realizes what a loser money pit NBC represents.

I didn't watch Leno before and definitely will never watch him now.

I would rather watch reruns of johnny carson than any of the people they have on late night now.

Well, I guess it's back to not watching the Tonight Show again...

Thanks for the bitter memories Jay.
Oh that's right, you're just a victim of all this.

I read that Conan is walking out with 30 millions..??

Man..I guess I was in the wrong industry all my life, Because these guys are getting fired, and they get millions for it.

No wonder the Country is screw-up, the system is totally dysfuctional.

Welcome back Jay! I feel bad for Conan, however this time slot was not his audience. And he will walk away with 20 or 30 million dollars. And eventually he will go to another network and make a fortune. It's not all bad. Good luck to both Conan and Jay. And finally I can watch the Tonight Show again.

A letter to Jay Leno from a longtime fan
Dear Jay,
I’ve been watching you since the days you were a stand-in for Johnny Carson. When you first got the job on the tonight show, I was so disappointed how Johnny wouldn’t appear or provide any comments to support the new host of the show. After all Jay, you were such a likable guy; a class act in the business. No doubt, I was your target audience and have continued to be from the beginning. Where others migrated over to Letterman, I stayed with you all the way. I thought your opening monologue was better than David’s and while others may criticize some of your other comedy bits (Jay walking etc…)….somehow I still liked it. It’s an interesting phenomenon in comedy. Your friend, Jerry Seinfeld talks about this. His audience has become so loyal that they start laughing when he simply gets on the stage. Because it’s Seinfeld, his comedy bit can be a little off and he will still get the laughs. Let’s face it….some of your bits were pretty lame, but because it was you, they still got the laughs.
What you fail to realize is that this is never just about how funny you might be. It is about the connection between you and your audience. Johnny Carson knew this better than anyone. This show is different than any other talk show or variety show. Your show becomes a nightly habit for fans like me who make a connection with you. All those years where I would read about the ugly side of Jay Leno, I didn’t believe it. I saw you night after night and only could see a class act, with character and integrity. All the rumors about the dark side of Jay Leno were simply attacks from your late night competition that you blew away in the ratings. I connected with you Jay. You were not simply a funny guy, but I admired and respected you. Why do you think so many tears were cried when Johnny Carson stepped down? Do you really think his audience was going to simply miss his comedy? No, it was about the man….the audience was going to miss the person that they connected with all those years.
When I first heard about the proposed changes with the Tonight Show, I knew you would be that stand up guy with character and integrity and say “No, this isn’t the right thing to do”….. Little did I know it would be Conan Obrien that would be the man with class who could do what you wouldn’t. He wasn’t going to ruin the institution of the Tonight Show and encroach on his friend Jimmy Fallon for the almighty dollar. For what it’s worth, I was the new audience for Conan. I have to admit, I didn’t like all of his comedy bits and monologue, but I do believe in time he would have won over a loyal following from an audience like me. There was and is a real energy about Conan that I like and I could see him building the tonight show into the success it has always enjoyed.
The final nail in the coffin moment for me was watching your Jay Leno Show the other night. I sat in absolute disgust watching the 10@10 with you and Jimmy Kimmel. It was a true awakening to see Jimmy blast you with barbs of satire about what you were doing and you just stood there and said nothing. What you didn’t realize is that you said EVERYTHING. Your lack of response and smug stature revealed yourself as Kimmel hit you over and over again with the painful truth. I saw the real Jay Leno that I had never seen before…..it wasn’t about your audience, your peers or your craft….it was all about Jay Leno.
Welcome back to your show Jay. I am sure NBC will be in for another shocker when your audience has left and you sink the Tonight Show to an all new low. Sadly enough, your network will no doubt give you as long as you need to try and build your audience….obviously something they never did for Conan. It’s an interesting twist;…..you’ve actually become the Corporate NBC Suit that you used to make fun of in your monologues…..ah….let me correct that statement. No doubt you’ve always been the NBC Corporate Suit; we just never knew it until now.

Robert Norden
Diamond Bar, CA

NBC is using the disappointing performance of Leno's prime-time show as an excuse to fire Conan O'Brien. O'Brien's "Tonight Show" not only lost Leno's audience, but it failed to bring his "Late Show" audience along with him, which is what NBC had counted on. For the first time in decades, the "Tonight Show" has been trounced in the ratings by none other than "Nightline". Conan O'Brien's appeal may have worked for the insomniac fringe of younger viewers, but he was totally wrong for the larger, older skewing "Tonight Show" time slot. There is no question that O'Brien has a fan base. It's just not large enough. When Leno moved to prime-time, his fans could watch him, then tune in to Letterman, who is more like Leno than O'Brien.

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