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NBC gives Conan the boot; Leno returns to late night

Jan. 22, 2010

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Associated Press
Conan O'Brien makes his debut on NBC's "The Tonight Show" in June 2009.

By Meg James and Joe Flint
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - Ending his brief reign as host of one of television's longest-running shows, Conan O'Brien on Thursday 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 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 9 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.

Zucker crafted a quick fix: give Leno a 9 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 9 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 percent, and NBC was facing a mutiny as many affiliates threatened to push Leno to 10 p.m. and run their local news at 9 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 11:05 a.m., to make room for Leno at 10:35 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 10 p.m. time period.

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 10:35 p.m. time slot remains a question mark.