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Chin Up at NBC, Part V: Conan O’Brien and NBC Reach the Deal

George Lang Published: January 21, 2010
In this image released by NBC, Conan O'Brien, center, of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien"  mock-punches Jon Stewart, left, from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report" during an appearance on O'Brien's show, Monday, Feb. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/NBC, Dana Edelson)  ** NO SALES, MANDATORY CREDIT: NBC **   Original Filename: YE_Top_10_Web_Videos_NYET538.jpg
In this image released by NBC, Conan O'Brien, center, of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" mock-punches Jon Stewart, left, from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report" during an appearance on O'Brien's show, Monday, Feb. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/NBC, Dana Edelson) ** NO SALES, MANDATORY CREDIT: NBC ** Original Filename: YE_Top_10_Web_Videos_NYET538.jpg

This morning, NBC officially announced a $45 million settlement with Conan O’Brien, facilitating his departure from “The Tonight Show,” reinstating Jay Leno as of March 1, and allowing O’Brien to return to the air on another network as early as Sept. 1, 2010.

From the Associated Press:

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 200-strong staff in severance, the network said in an announcement on the “Today” show.

His final show will be Friday, with Tom Hanks scheduled to appear as well as Will Ferrell — the first guest O’Brien welcomed as “Tonight” host last June — and musical guest Neil Young.

“In the end, Conan was appreciative of the steps NBC made to take care of his staff and crew, and decided to supplement the severance they were getting out of his own pocket,” his manager, Gavin Polone, told The Wall Street Journal. “Now he just wants to get back on the air as quickly as possible.”

As has been widely reported, O’Brien has not been offically (or, shall we say, publicly) offered a deal with Fox or any other potential suitors such as Comedy Central, but watch this space closely, because something dramatic is likely to happen in the next weeks, possibly next week — aw hell, it could happen today for all we know.

For those of you with memories that extend back to the 1992 late-night war chronicled in Bill Carter’s “The Late Shift,” David Letterman made an announcement surrounded by CBS executives as soon as NBC released him from his contract. Here’s what I suspect will happen: O’Brien will continue on with his shows tonight and tomorrow (and trust me, pay close attention to what Neil Young plays on Friday). Then on Monday morning, O’Brien and his new bosses will hold a press conference announcing his new show.

As Chase requested, here is Letterman’s scathing comment on the situation from Tuesday:

NBC will reap the whirlwind for its handling of this debacle. The network has given O’Brien a great deal, but now NBC is remarried to Leno, who returns to “The Tonight Show” as tarnished goods. Leno will likely score strong numbers when he reboots his “Tonight” in March, just because so many people will be curious, but much of his former audience now resides with Letterman and his good-guy image has been replaced by that of a giant-jawed Machiavellian. He might never reach his former heights. I personally do not think he will. But NBC owns him. It’s the Pottery Barn rule, chumps.

For the final word on this mess, for now, let’s leave it to Howard Stern. Appearing on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” on Dec. 14, 2006, Stern predicted what happened in the last two weeks with almost frightening accuracy:

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