NBC: Conan O’Brien reaches $45M exit deal
AP Television Writer
NEW YORK – NBC said Thursday it has reached a $45 million deal with Conan O’Brien for his exit from the “Tonight” show, allowing Jay Leno to return to the late-night program he hosted for 17 years.
Under the deal, which came seven months after O’Brien took the reins from Leno, O’Brien will get more than $33 million, NBC said. The rest will go to his staff in severance, the network said in an announcement on a NBC morning news show.
His final show will be Friday, and Leno will return to “Tonight” on March 1.
Compensation for O’Brien’s staff and crew was the final hurdle in negotiations. O’Brien was said to have been “dug in” on the issue out of concern for the workers, while NBC said this week that it had already agreed to pay “millions of dollars to compensate every one of them” and deemed it a public relations “ploy.”
Clearly, the differences were worked out.
“Conan appreciated what NBC did to take care of his staff and crew, and decided to supplement the severance they were getting from the network out of his own pocket,” said his manager, Gavin Polone.
O’Brien will be free to start another TV job after Sept. 1, NBC said in its statement, released Thursday, which confirmed that “under terms of an agreement that was signed earlier today, NBC and O’Brien will settle their contractual obligations and the network will release O’Brien from his contract.”
O’Brien’s final show will be Friday, with Tom Hanks scheduled to appear as well as Will Ferrell – his first guest as “Tonight” host last June.
What happens next for O’Brien?
“We don’t know,” Polone said. “While we have had expressions of interest, we have not had any substantive conversations with anybody.”
Ideally, said Polone, O’Brien “wants to get back on the air, doing the show he’s doing now, as soon as possible.”
There has been much speculation on where he might go next. ABC (which airs “Nightline” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”) has said it wasn’t interested, while Fox, which lacks a network late-night show, expressed appreciation for his show – but nothing more.
O’Brien landed the “Tonight” show after successfully hosting “Late Night,” which airs an hour later, since 1993. But he quickly stumbled in the ratings race against his CBS rival, David Letterman.
Under Leno, the “Tonight” show was the ratings champ at 11:35 p.m. Eastern, but he proved an instant flop with his experiment in prime time, “The Jay Leno Show,” which aired at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Last week NBC announced that the five-hour vacancy in prime time left by Leno will be filled by scripted and reality fare calculated to bring NBC affiliate stations a more robust lead-in audience for their local news than Leno had been delivering.
Earlier this month, NBC executives unveiled a plan to restore Leno to 11:35 p.m. with a half-hour program, then slide O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m., followed by “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” also pushed back a half-hour.
The network had been counting on O’Brien’s cooperation, but shortly after he issued a statement rejecting the offer to delay his show to make room for Leno’s return.
O’Brien said that shifting “Tonight” would “seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting,” and he declared his disappointment that NBC had given him less than a year to establish himself as host at 11:35 p.m.