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Conan to get $32 million in split with NBC.

Byline: Bob Strauss Staff Writer

The NBC/Conan O'Brien divorce is final.

But you can expect Charlie Sheen/Denise Richards-style acrimony to continue in monologues and press releases well into next season.

"Many of you have probably heard the news; NBC and I have finally reached a separation agreement," O'Brien said in his Thursday "Tonight Show" monologue. "I knew it was official this morning when NBC dropped off all my CDs and picked up its lava lamp."

Jay Leno, who will return as "Tonight's" host March 1, said during his low-rated prime time show: "As many of you know Conan is leaving the network. His final show airs tomorrow night. I have chosen to stay on the Titanic."

NBC will pay $32 million-plus to make O'Brien, its loyal employee of some 20 years, go away after hosting "The Tonight Show" for a mere seven months. The network will also pony up $12 million more for members of O'Brien's staff and crew, many of whom moved to Los Angeles for the "Tonight" gig last spring from New York - where they'd worked on the 16-year run of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." O'Brien said he would personally add an undisclosed amount to that pot.

Leno, whose prime time show's ratings failure triggered the late-night crisis, hosted "Tonight" from 1992 until last May, when he reluctantly but cordially handed over the reins of the 55-year-old late-night franchise to the younger O'Brien.

"Once again, Jay Leno gets what he wants," observed noted television authority Robert Thompson of Syracuse University. "Jay Leno seems to always get what he wants.

"Back in the '90s, he wanted to replace Johnny Carson on 'The Tonight Show.' David Letterman may have been the better candidate; Leno got it. This time, Jay didn't want to quit 'The Tonight Show,' he didn't want to do prime time, and by gosh, four months into it, once again Jay's going to get what he wants."

"We're pleased that Jay is returning to host the franchise that he helmed brilliantly and successfully for many years," Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, said in an official statement.

Under pressure from NBC chief Jeff Zucker, Leno agreed five years ago to leave "Tonight" in 2009. But, not wanting him to jump to a competitor, NBC came up with the 10 p.m. "Jay Leno Show" gambit, which debuted in September.

It bombed badly, something Leno now claims he believed would happen from the start.

"I said, 'That will never work,"' he said Monday on his prime time show, now scheduled to end its run when the Olympics start Feb. 12.

Leno's 10 p.m. show was blamed for bleeding viewers from affiliates' 11 p.m. news shows, and for depressing the lead-in to O'Brien's "Tonight Show" at 11:35 p.m.

But Leno also noted Monday that his replacement began losing the lead Leno had long enjoyed over CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" months before "The Jay Leno Show" began.

When the affiliates forced NBC to cancel "Leno," Gaspin proposed moving Jay to a half-hour show beginning at 11:35. But O'Brien balked at having "Tonight"'s start time pushed back to 12:05 a.m. Since then, lawyers and managers have been negotiating a release from his NBC contract.

O'Brien's exit deal prevents him from working for an NBC rival until September. Whether or not that opportunity will present itself is another matter.

Executives at the Fox Network, which currently ends its national broadcasts at 10 p.m., have consistently expressed interest in O'Brien. But setting up an 11 p.m. show for him involves complex negotiations with Fox's own affiliates.

ABC, meanwhile, has publicly expressed complete satisfaction with its "Nightline"/"Jimmy Kimmel Live!" lineup.

A move to the lowly CW or cable would be an obvious comedown for Conan. And, of course, any new show he does would have to work in the ratings - and quickly.

"When you change any of the pieces, even somebody who is very successful in one place can fall flat on their face in another," cautioned Tim Brooks, a 40-year veteran television network executive. "You're breaking the magic combination.

"With Conan, who was beginning to get some traction but wasn't exactly a hyper-runaway star in late night, to kind of break that and put him aside for a while, he might have to pull a Paula Abdul and come back as a judge on 'American Idol' to recapture his career."

As for the prime time-damaged Leno, who's been characterized as a villain in the scenario and lost viewers to Letterman during the Conan interregnum, proving that he can reclaim the late-night throne won't be easy.

But, as he's just proven again, never underestimate the power of The Chin.

"For Hollywood's Mr. Nice Guy, Jay Leno seems to be almost robotic in his ability to compete and end up on top of these things," Thompson observed.

"I know Conan's lost a lot of his audience," Brooks said. "But this whole thing brings more attention back to Jay and puts him more front-of-mind, and that's very important for any television personality. So he'll get a big initial tune-in. Then it will settle down pretty much to where he was, minus maybe 10 percent or something."

Or maybe more, once the temporary ratings-boosting jokes both Leno and O'Brien have been making about the NBC fiasco become old news.

bob.strauss@dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 22, 2010
Words:904
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