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NBC source: Conan contract doesn't guarantee "The Tonight Show" start time

January 15, 2010 |  4:13 pm
NBC and Conan O’Brien and his camp have been divided in recent days over a key question:  Is it “The Tonight Show” if the program does not begin at 11:35 p.m., immediately following the late local news?

Friday, an NBC official said that there was no mention of an 11:35 p.m. start time in O'Brien's contract, which guaranteed him the job as host of "The Tonight Show." NBC has proposed pushing O'Brien's show to 12:05 a.m. to make room for Jay Leno's return to late night.

O'Brien "does not have any time-slot protection in his contract," said an NBC executive who asked not to be identified discussing provisions of O'Brien's contract. Representatives for O'Brien were not immediately available to respond.

The issue is important because it could decide whether NBC is in breach of O'Brien's contract -- and whether the legal case could end up before a jury. People close to O'Brien said that O'Brien's earlier agreement with NBC specifically spelled out that "The Tonight Show" begins at 11:35 p.m. -- so they are confident in their position that "The Tonight Show" starts at 11:35 p.m. O'Brien in his public missive earlier in the week said that "For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news."

Said O'Brien: "The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show."

Meanwhile, people from both camps said they were close to a resolution that would end the acrimonious week-long battle that has damaged the reputations of NBC, Leno and O’Brien. The deal would call for O’Brien to leave NBC, clearing the way for Jay Leno to reclaim his longtime seat behind the desk at “The Tonight Show.” O'Brien was expected to host his show tonight and next week, said people close to the situation.

The exit agreement would end the seven-month tenure of O’Brien, who became the fifth host of “The Tonight Show” in June. It would also mark a high-profile misstep of NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker, who devised the plan in 2004 to give O’Brien “The Tonight Show” in 2009. Last year, Zucker shuffled the deck again, giving Leno his own prime-time show in an effort to try to keep both comedians in the NBC fold.

-- Meg James