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NBC and Conan O'Brien finalize settlement


Ending his brief reign as host of one of television's longest-running shows, Conan O'Brien today finalized a rich severance deal with NBC that releases the comedian from "The Tonight Show" and frees him to join another network in time for the new fall season, an NBC spokeswoman confirmed.

The settlement, hammered out over the last week, brings to an abrupt end O'Brien's nearly 20-year career with NBC, where he began as a staff writer for "Saturday Night Live" in the late 1980s. His separation from NBC includes a payout that will go down as one of the most eye-popping in the annals of Hollywood: O'Brien, who has 2 1/2 years remaining on his contract, will walk away with about $32 million, according to people close to the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Overall, NBC will have to shell out $40 million to $50 million to close the book on its late-night drama.

NBC agreed to compensate the show's staff members, including executive producer Jeff Ross. About 190 people worked on the show, including nearly 70 people who relocated to Los Angeles from New York early last year to work with O'Brien at the program's newly built studios on the Universal lot. NBC and O'Brien's team spent the last few days ironing out severance packages for all the show's workers.

O'Brien's manager, Gavin Polone, said the talk show host would kick in some of his own money for his staff as well.

O'Brien's final "Tonight Show" appearance will be Friday. But he may not be off the air for long. The comedian will be allowed to work on a competing network by September. Jay Leno will be back in his old time slot even sooner. Leno, who surrendered "The Tonight Show" to O'Brien last spring and then was handed his own prime-time show on the network at 10 p.m., will return to late night after NBC's Olympic coverage concludes at the end of February.

The costly resolution ends two weeks of high drama that damaged the images and reputations not only of NBC executives, but also of Leno, who was painted as the villain by many in the media including CBS' David Letterman, who took numerous jabs at Leno over the last week. He was also the target of a grass-roots Internet campaign to demonstrate support for the embattled O'Brien. Earlier this week, Leno provided his side of the story on his program, saying he told NBC executives that he was skeptical that a prime-time show would work.

It was an undignified end to O'Brien's long career at NBC -- he spent 16 years as host of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" -- and his short tenure at "The Tonight Show." Certainly this was not how NBC anticipated O'Brien's run with "The Tonight Show" playing out when it declared him the "king of late night" in June after he made his debut as host.

Ironically, NBC looked to avoid this exact scenario when it decided in 2004 to make O'Brien host of "The Tonight Show" in 2009. That move, engineered by the company's chief executive, Jeff Zucker, was done to keep O'Brien from jumping to Fox. NBC also was betting that by 2009 Leno would be ready to exit the stage and that O'Brien, who appealed to younger viewers, would be ready to take over. But as his retirement loomed, Leno became increasingly unhappy at the prospect of stepping aside while still No. 1 in the ratings.

Moreover, with rival networks expressing interest in hiring Leno, Zucker faced a difficult choice: Renege on his promise to give O'Brien "The Tonight Show" -- and pay him a $40-million breakup fee -- or follow through with his plan and nudge Leno out the "Tonight Show" door.

ZUCKER Instead, Zucker crafted a quick fix: Give Leno a 10 p.m. show, which would keep both comedians in the NBC fold. O'Brien went along with Zucker's "Leno in prime-time" plan when it was announced in 2008. He moved his family to Los Angeles to prepare to inherit the late-night institution previously hosted by Johnny Carson and, before him, Jack Paar. But Leno's show at 10 p.m., which launched in September, drew weak ratings and critiques by TV critics that Leno seemed off his game.

The low viewership level hurt NBC's affiliates, who count on a large audience at 10 p.m. to boost their late local news programs, a big revenue generator. Many local stations experienced ratings declines of more than 20%, and NBC was facing a mutiny as many affiliates threatened to push Leno to 11 p.m. and run their local news at 10 p.m. NBC executives decided they needed to make a switch and told O'Brien they were pushing the start time of his show half an hour later, to 12:05 a.m., to make room for Leno at 11:35 p.m. 

NBC expected that O'Brien would go along. But he refused, triggering a firestorm of controversy and rich material for other comedians.

Now O'Brien is free to decide his future. Most industry observers are betting that Fox, which has struggled in the past to get into the late-night game, is his next stop. Indeed, O'Brien has a history with Fox, where he spent two years as a writer on "The Simpsons" in the early 1990s. Just last week, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly expressed enthusiasm for O'Brien -- but the network may face a hard sell with its affiliates, some of whom are locked into contracts to run syndicated sitcom reruns in the 11 p.m. time period.

But if Fox really wants O'Brien, odds are it would find a way to make it happen. The earliest he would be on the network would be in the fall, but next January is more likely.

Meanwhile, Leno, whose prime-time show ends Feb. 11, will face the challenge of improving on O'Brien's ratings. NBC has been trailing CBS' David Letterman and is tied with him in the coveted demographic of adults ages 18 to 49. During the last week, O'Brien's ratings have nearly doubled. Whether the backlash against Leno, fair or not, will hurt him when he returns to his old 11:35 p.m. time slot remains a question mark.

And finally, NBC, which is already enduring a tough season, now has to spend heavily to develop new shows for the 10 p.m. hour, at a time when the General Electric Co.-owned network already conceded that it would lose about $200 million on its coverage of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

-- Meg James and Joe Flint

Photos: Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno in seemingly happier times. Credit: Margaret Norton / NBC

NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker. Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press


Conan O'Brien agrees to exit "The Tonight Show"

Conan O'Brien's post-NBC options

Comments () | Archives (48)

NBC managed to pay out the wazoo for screwing over a lot of people, lose a lot a talent probably to a rival station, make the guy who is getting his show back look bad, and making themselves look like incompetent idiots which they are.

I agree that Leno comes out looking like the bad guy and should have been more forceful when he asked TWICE to be released from his contract. Then NBC would have had their 10 o'clock slot in tact and if Conan had flopped on his own merits NBC would have been forced to deal with the business decision far differently than they did. If Leno had left NBC in September when he did, they would have had to now put Jimmy Fallon in the Tonight Show and from what I have heard of him, he's not any better than Conan. I am interested to see how this all plays out and particularly interested to see when Leno officially retires where the Tonight Show goes when their is no plan B when the new host flops. I have already decided that once Jay and David Letterman retire, I am through watching late night TV!! NBC in general is not that great of a network anyway.

Stacy's post below is right..Jeff Ross ruined Conan by allowing Andy back onto the show. Late Night with Conan took off when Andy left, so it was an odd decision to bring him back into the fold. Andy took up valuable time in the show and never really served a valuable comedic purpose.

There have been plenty of vocal supporters for Conan...whether any of these people actually watched the Tonight Show is a different story. The fact that Conan made $10+mil a year and was unwilling to go along with NBC's plan is beyond selfish. I come from a world where if you don't do as your boss pleases, you get canned...with little or no severance. Why everyone thinks Conan is a Victim in all this is equally puzzling. He's making $10+ Mil a year!

I find it mindboggling that a lot of people say Jay Leno is not funny. Consider this: Leno was the host of the Tonight Show for almost 20 years and beat Letterman for about 15 of those years in ratings. He was FORCED to retire the Tonight Show and give it Conan when NBC begged Leno not to leave for another network. Conan and Jay have different types of humor that appeal to their respective audiences. To say Leno is not funny is like saying the Tonight Show was horrible the last 20 years! I love Jay and Conan and watch thier shows whenever I can and laugh like a mad man when I watch them. NBC is the root of all evil i this fiasco, not Jay.

Now that that is over and settled, it's time for the media to focus on the next major story - Letterman vs. Leno - who will win the late night ratings war?


I'm thinking Leno wins.

NBC is a joke and this is why most of us do not watch the channel anymore.
I havent watched the tonight show since Chin-o took over

I live in Wales (U.K) but have been lucky over the years to be able to watch first Late Night with Letterman and then via satellite on the CNBC network, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno followed by The Late Show with Conan O Brian.

These two shows were normally shown in the U.K. two or three days later than in the U.S.

Both shows I enjoyed very much over the last few years with both Jay and Conan each having their different styles of presentation which although following the same show format, were a joy to watch.
The two shows complemented each other perfectly and NBC was on a winner.

Then everything fell apart.

Jay was given a new show while Conan was moved to the tonight show.
Unfortunately for reasons I have never found out, Jay Leno's new show was never shown on CNBC in the U.K. so I can't comment on what his new show was like.
Thankfully we still had Conan although he was in different surroundings which I have always thought he never looked really comfortable in.

NBC have really messed things up. We have a saying over here...if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Unfortunately NBC tried to change a winning format and shot themselves in the foot. We all know what happened next to NBC............

Lost ratings, lost a lot of money & now lost a damn good host as well.

Surely they (NBC) could have come to some arrangement with the two presenters back in 2009 to keep them in their respective late night slots. (one in N.York and the other in L.A.) where both shows ratings were very high.

Having said all that it will be nice to see Jay Leno make a welcome return to the Tonight Show where I feel that he should have stayed in the first place.
I just hope CNBC will show The Tonight Show over here in the U.K.
I also would like to wish Conan O Brian all the very best and hope he will make a quick return to our TV screens very soon.
We have already had to suffer Jay being off air for a few months and now it will be the same with Conan.

Don't these TV Networks ever take into account the wishes of the viewing public??
We are the ones that always have to miss out.

Richard Stone - Wales

Ho-hum. When the Leno primetime show was just being CONSIDERED, it was "water-cooler" gamesmenship to see who'd come closest to guessing it's quick & inevitable demise. That this idea was even allowed to see the light of day has GOT to be the final nail in Zucker's coffin. This guy has made one bad decision after another. H e has killed any number of worthy projects that had true potential but were too soon pulled after a slow start. But "Cheers" had a slow start. Ranked #74 in the ratings...out of 74 shows. Unlike Zucker, the NBC Decider then had vision, and the show was given enough of a shot to become the ratings juggernaut that it eventually became. Bizarrely conversel, he has given LIFE to stuff like...Leno in primetime. There's a plethora of myths in Hollywood about the very successful sleeping their way to the top. To Mr. Zucker's credit, he must be dynamite in the sack. He certainly can't run a network...

well, i don´t feel sorry for a guy who walks away with over 30 million dollars for just seven month´s work....anyway, we´ll soon see who really pulled the short straw when Leno goes back on air on the Tonight Show

Jay and NBC vs. Conan

Jay is a nice guy but highly over rated. He’s only as funny as his “writers” which was evident during the writer’s strike a couple years ago. When Jay was a guest panelist on Real Time with Bill Maher last year, he had nothing of substance to contribute to the discussion.

Jay is most awkward and uncomfortable working with children and animals. He can not relate to them and it’s so obvious.

Letterman was number two in the ratings for years but CBS didn’t can him. Now NBC wants to can Conan because he’s been number two for seven months.

If Jay wanted to, he could’ve stepped in and told NBC to leave Conan alone. When the dust settles I’ll be one less person watching the “Tonight Show”.

Conan wasn't funny at 12:30 and he isn't funny at 11:30 because (say it with me) he isn't funny. Conan's smug, abrasive, condescending schtick appeals to a very narrow demographic and his sketch "humor" is even less amusing than Craig Ferguson's J.K. Rowling bits. Conan and Jeff Zucker are directly and solely responsible for the devolution of the TONIGHT SHOW.

Jay Leno didn't want to leave TONIGHT but graciously honored Zucker's 2004 request to surrender the show to Conan and doesn't deserve the ignorant, relentless criticism he's been getting from Conan and other folks, David Letterman in particular. Letterman is, or at least has been, repeatedly cheating on the mother of their son even after they were married, and therefore doesn't have the moral standing to criticize anyone for anything.

Jay's 10pm show is an unqualified disaster on several levels--especially the sketch "comedy"--but I'm confident that he will quickly restore TONIGHT's lusterous reputation as the Gold Standard of late night television. Welcome back, Jay; was it all just a horrible Bobby Ewing dream?

GE/NBC Universal should fire Jeff Zucker before he does any more damage that devalues the NBC brand.

Peter said "The fact that Conan made $10+mil a year and was unwilling to go along with NBC's plan is beyond selfish. I come from a world where if you don't do as your boss pleases, you get canned...with little or no severance. Why everyone thinks Conan is a Victim in all this is equally puzzling. He's making $10+ Mil a year".

Peter, its like sports, entertainers and athletes do what they do do because of the love of the sport or the art, they don't jsut show up to work for the paycheck like the average Joe the plumber. Jeff Zucker needs to be canned ASAP!!!

Anyone remember Max Headroom? With AVATAR raking it in, I think it's time we try a virtual "late night" host. Or, failing that, if the Oscars and other award shows can survive rotating hosts, so can late night. We're only watching for the guests plugging their latest project anyway.

Anyone remember Max Headroom? With AVATAR raking it in, I think it's time we try a virtual "late night" host. Or, failing that, if the Oscars and other award shows can survive rotating hosts, so can late night. We're only watching for the guests plugging their latest project anyway.

Leno didn't do anything "graciously." The "gracious" thing would have been to announce his retirement from the Tonight Show...and, oh yeah, stay retired!

Also, there's nothing gracious about being NBC's lap dog.

Am I the only one who grew tired of the press swallowng Team Conan's spin about how he's a victim? He could have given 12:05 a.m. a try, and his staff would still have jobs, benefits and futures. But his manager and advisors overplayed their hands. Conan is no more entitled to sit in Johnny Carson's chair because he grew up dreaming about it than I am of pitching for the Dodgers because I grew up watching Koufax. You have to perform, and he didn't. In the end, Conan, his producer and his manager make out like bandits for 7 months work while the staff gets stiffed, all because their egos couldn't adapt to the reality that they couldn't cut it at 11:35 p.m. I don't care if he's feeling guilty so he's giving them a little bit of money. This was a seslfish.

Several years from now, when Conan hosts a thriving late night show on Fox that dominates the coveted 18-49 year old demographic, I suspect NBC will regret its decision to let him go. Meanwhile, after Leno finally retires, the network will be be faced with an awkward decision about whether to promote current Late Night host Jimmy Fallon to the Tonight Show desk or hire outside the company, once an unthinkable option. If these predictions hold true, it shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, long-term planning for his network's future clearly isn't Zucker's forte.

Read more @ http://confessionsofanangryloner.blogspot.com/

Conan is a victim only in that he was promised the Tonight Show five years ago and therefore stayed at 12:35 (could have taken advantage of other opportunities), relocated himself and staff from NY to CA, and in just 7 months had the 11:35 show taken from him. This would not have happened if Leno had taken himself out of the picture.

Yes, Conan et al made out very well financially but would have much rather had the opportunity to continue on the Tonight Show at 11:35 as originally planned.

The selfish thing would have been to accept the 12:05 option. By not agreeing, Conan allowed the Tonight Show to stay at 11:35 (where it belongs) even if it meant he would not be the host. About the only "good" to come from all of this mess is that the Tonight Show is remaining at 11:35. Clearly the NBC execs and Leno couldn't care less about the franchise and tradition as they were ready to push it to 12:05. Now THAT is selfish.

Conan not funny? Leno funnier than Conan? Fallon funnier than Conan? They all have their good shows and they all have their bad shows, it's all part of late night. But Conan wrote for SNL and the Simpsons, and his brand of humor hits the target for the younger generation (while Fallon is young too, he just does not have that spark yet). Unfortunately, this is the same generation that would rather go online anytime they want to watch a rerun of the show or a "best of" clip on YouTube, rather than wait for a specific time every night to watch their beloved funnyman. I think this has a huge effect on the ratings.

Yeah the ratings are the controlling factor, but this is all about their egos being hurt. I watched both Leno and O'Brien but I think this crap is going to hurt Leno's old audience bad, Like me I won't watch Jay Leno that much and tried to settle down for that other overrated comedian in NY. In the end Lettterman will win the ratings and Leno will end up retiring anyway. I love to wacthed O'Brien he is so goofy and funny, this mess did brought the best of him TRUE!! and wherever he goes if he continues this funny he will be GREAT. NBC you screw up BAAAAAAAADDDDDD.

Leno bring the Desk back!! that new set up is stupid.
Letterman get rid off you desk, we want to see what what you are doing.

Conan´s washing of his dirty laundry in public (on his show) is typical of his incredible immaturity...all part of his huge, brash, college kid ego...a real man would have taken the whole thing on the chin, smiled wryly to himself as he banked his 30-odd million, then got on with making a new career somewhere else

NBC is ridiculous. They should have told Leno too bad so sad, go host Top Gear America like you planned (but then backed out), retire, or we'll squeeze you in after Jimmy Fallon. Conan was hilarious and he found a great niche in the 11:35pm time slot. He kept his zany attitude and lost the stuff that only worked for Late Night. NBC really dropped the ball and proved they make the kind of decisions rivaled only by the American Auto Industry.

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