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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)

When is NBC going to divorce from Jeff Zucker?

It looks like Conan will have to work twice as hard to get back on his feet than Leno. Lots of obstacles and limitations to deal with here despite the legion of fans.

Poor Conan.
Only a 25 to 35 million dollar payout to scrape by on until Fox takes him in.

EXACTLY freelols.
Once they decided Jay was in @ 11:30, they pushed Conan out.
NBC wanted out of the Conan experiment but they bobbled it (just like everything else they've done for the past 10 years) and it blew up in their face.

Even if Conan had surprised NBC by saying yes, Conan would have been working on a strick clock to give Jay the full Tonite show.

I think Conan was classy in refusing to taint the show any more than NBC already has.
He'll land on his feet.

Why can't leno go off and play with his toy cars and bow out of late night like a good little old boy. His image of being one of the nice guys as been shot to hell.
It's obvious how his behind tantrums of wanting his way is exposed once again and well shadow any future PR Band-Aids his camp sticks up. .. I well never watch his show.. not that I ever did but if it were a choice I would not now. Leno could have helped out the Conan Show many employes who have moved out to the west coast with there boss but he selfishly and shamelessly did not.. what a mess nbc executives have made out of this human comedy of errors.

I allways watched Letterman,but when Leno came on at 10I thought that was great I could see both the late night shows.They needed to give people enought time to get to deal with the change.NBC made a great move but didn't give it enough time to take affect.Sorry to see it go back.Connon SUCKS!

work or not work let me see you give me 30m not to talk ok ill do that

I'm looking forward to Jay being back where he belongs.

The article is good, as far as it goes, but it neglects to mention that Conan's ratings at 12:30 were not great the last few years, once he got some real competition - he was losing to his competitors there, and that continued in the 11:30 slot, well before Leno's show debuted (he was at half of Letterman's viewers).

It wasn't just Leno's 10:00 ratings, or the poor performance of NBC's dramas before that, that hurt Conan. It was Conan's juvenile humor that grated on the earlier audience; it may have worked at 12:30, sort of, but didn't travel well.

Does NBC seriously think there is any good will left for Jay Leno? Does NBC seriously think that his late night ratings will soar back to where they used to be? Especially if Conan takes his show to Fox? Clue to the clueless at NBC: Won't Happen! As Leno and Conan split the former NBC late night audience, Letterman will be No. 1 in late night for years to come.

Congratulations Zucker!

Jay Leno retired. He is still retired as far as I'm concerned. I've found other things to watch at 10: p.m. during the week. I won't be going back to NBC, just because they changed their mind. Law&Order had 10: all locked up. NBC destroyed that. Good work NBC; You destroyed your brand, and took your shows with you.

Am I the only one that is starting to think this whole thing is just a big publicity stunt orchestrated by NBC to boost sagging ratings?

Can not wait to see Leno fail. Again.

i think Leno suits NBC... they r both as stupid n dull n boring as each other... CoCo is soemthing else... cant wait 2 see him on another better much better netwrok... NBC will never have me tuning in again... NEVER! and PLEASE all Conan fans, boycott leno completely when he is back... u... ur family... n everyone u know should never watch leno.... ever !!!

There are multiple people suggesting that Jay pushed out Carson. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Carson wanted to retire several times, but NBC kept raising the $$$ in order to get him to stay. They even shorted the Tonight Show from 90 minutes to 60 minutes to lighten the job.

I'm wondering how anyone could possibly confuse the facts surrounding Johnny's retirement. It was common knowledge during that event. Let's not rewrite history to try and make a point. There is plenty of dirt on all parties already without inventing things that did not happen.

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