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O'Brien exit talks stall on compensation for staffers

NBC dismisses the 'Tonight Show' host's demands as 'a PR ploy.' Many of the employees who are about to lose their jobs followed O'Brien to L.A. from New York.

January 20, 2010|By Meg James

Negotiations over Conan O'Brien's departure from NBC stalled Tuesday over the "Tonight Show" host's demands that NBC compensate staff members who will lose their jobs when the show goes off the air.

The issue was one of several slowing the negotiations, which were expected to have been finalized earlier in the week.

"The Tonight Show" employs about 190 people, including 60 to 70 who followed O'Brien to Los Angeles from New York last year when he switched jobs. NBC paid to relocate 40 to 50 of those staffers, said a person close to show.

O'Brien's last night on the "Tonight Show" is expected to be Friday. NBC has not said when the show's former longtime host, Jay Leno, will return to the late-night slot. Leno's last appearance on his short-lived prime-time show is Feb. 11.

The O'Brien-Leno fiasco is becoming increasingly costly for the General Electric Co.-owned network, which not only spent more than $25 million building a new studio for O'Brien on the Universal Studios lot, but now must also shell out millions more developing new dramas for 10 p.m., the time period vacated by Leno's return to late night. The moves come shortly after GE acknowledged that NBC will lose about $200 million on its upcoming Winter Olympics coverage.

NBC is facing $40 million to $50 million in "Tonight Show" severance payments, including about $30 million to O'Brien, according to people close to the situation.

This month, NBC decided to shift Leno back to 11:35 p.m. after affiliate TV stations threatened to preempt his prime-time show because they were losing viewers for their late local newscasts.

When NBC tried to push O'Brien's show to 12:05 a.m. to make room for a half-hour Leno show, O'Brien refused.

"We are fighting hard to get as much as possible to these people who are going to be out of work," Gavin Polone, O'Brien's manager, said Tuesday.

NBC officials bristled at the suggestion that they were being insensitive to staff members.

"It was Conan's decision to leave NBC that resulted in nearly 200 of his staffers being out of work. We have already agreed to pay millions of dollars to compensate every one of them. This latest posturing is nothing more than a PR ploy," NBC said in a statement.

Not so, Polone said. "It is not a ploy or a strategy. Conan's first priority is and always has been to take care of the employees of the show. He paid them out of his own pocket during the strike when NBC laid them off."

O'Brien has been unrelenting in his on-air swipes at the NBC brass. In his monologue Monday, O'Brien sang about them: "Morons. Incompetent morons."

On Tuesday he said, "It's been a busy day for me today. I spent the afternoon at Universal Studios' amusement park, enjoying their brand-new ride, the Tunnel of Litigation."

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