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

The announcement of the move, which returns Jay Leno as host of the late-night talk show after his failed try in prime time, is expected as early as Saturday. The reshuffle will be costly for NBC.

January 16, 2010|By Meg James and Joe Flint
  • Jay Leno chats with his successor, Conan O'Brien, during Leno's final "Tonight Show" in May. Now, after seven months, O'Brien is being forced out so that Leno can return, having bombed in a prime-time slot.
Jay Leno chats with his successor, Conan O'Brien, during Leno's… (Paul Drinkwater / NBC )

After a week of caustic jokes, jawboning and behind-the-scenes negotiations, "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien is leaving NBC to make room for the return of Jay Leno to late-night TV.

An announcement could come as early as today and will settle, at least in public, the acrimonious maneuvering among the comedians, their respective camps and NBC in the wake of its decision to shuffle Leno from prime time and back to his late-night slot, which O'Brien has occupied for the last seven months.

In the last few days, representatives for O'Brien and NBC resolved key issues, including how long O'Brien would have to sit on the sidelines before appearing on a rival network and how large a check the network would have to write, according to a person close to the negotiations. A couple of points were still to be hammered out, the person said, but were not expected to derail the deal.

O'Brien, the fifth host in "Tonight Show" history, is likely to have his final show Friday.

Leno's last show in prime time will be Feb. 11, the day before opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.

O'Brien and NBC have been at loggerheads since last week, when the network decided to cancel Leno's low-rated 10 p.m. show after only four months and return him to 11:35 p.m. That would have pushed O'Brien's show to 12:05 a.m.

But O'Brien refused to go along with NBC's plan. He contended that the move would violate his contract.

The resolution will be costly to NBC.

O'Brien, who earns about $12 million annually, has 2 1/2 years remaining on his contract. How much NBC will have to pay him depends on several factors, including how long the comedian stays off the air. But O'Brien's exit package is expected to be about $25 million to $35 million, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the negotiations were supposed to be private.

O'Brien's departure from NBC, where he started in 1988 as a writer on "Saturday Night Live" and five years later won his own late-night talk show, caps a week of on-air barbs and lampooning aimed at the network, which is owned by General Electric Co.

"In the press this week, NBC has been calling me every name in the book," O'Brien said in his monologue Friday. "In fact, they think I'm such an idiot they now want me to run the network."

NBC's flip-flop on Leno and its again relegating O'Brien to second-string status tarnished the images and reputations not only of O'Brien and Leno but also of Jeff Zucker, the NBC Universal chief executive who championed Leno's move to prime time. Zucker handed Leno his own show at 10 p.m. as a way to keep the comedian at the network after he had promised O'Brien "The Tonight Show."

The financial consequences of Zucker's decision could be severe and likely to last a long time. NBC spent more than $30 million to build new studio sets for both talk-show hosts, and now it must spend millions to develop shows to fill the 10 p.m. spot being vacated by Leno.

In addition, "The Tonight Show" lost nearly half of its audience during O'Brien's brief reign, and it's unclear whether Leno will be able to get his old viewers back. Local TV stations also suffered as their ratings plummeted.

This week NBC announced a prime-time schedule that will begin in March after the Winter Olympics.

At 10 p.m., "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."

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