Conan O'Brien To Leave NBC Under Deal

NBC and Conan O'Brien have come to a settlement that will release the host of The Tonight Show to go to another network in September. Now, NBC can move Jay Leno back to The Tonight Show and try to fix its schedule, which is in tatters.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

John Edwards' family mess has provided a lot of fodder for late-night talk show jokes, but lately the talk shows themselves have been the mess. Today, NBC came to something approaching a resolution over the fate of Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on the $45 million deal.

NEDA ULABY: Conan O'Brien will get over $33 million from NBC, with the rest as severance to his staff. But the real payoff has been the audiences.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr.�CONAN O'BRIEN (Television Host): This is crazy. Over the past week, ratings for our "Tonight Show" are up by 50 percent.

(Soundbite of applause)

ULABY: It's been voyeuristically fun to watch talk show hosts take sides, flaunt dirty laundry and lay ancient rivalries bare, like David Letterman's.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Late Show with David Letterman")

Mr.�DAVID LETTERMAN (Television Host): When we came over here to CBS, Jay "Big Jaw" Leno had "The Tonight Show."

Unidentified Man: Yeah, big jaw.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Last night, Leno hit back, alluding not so subtly to Letterman's workplace affairs.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Jay Leno Show")

Mr.�JAY LENO (Television Host): Letterman's been hammering me every night.

Mr. KEVIN EUBANKS (Musician): Yeah, that's weird.

Mr.�LENO: Oh, going after me. Hey Kevin, you know what's the best way to get Letterman to ignore you?

Mr. EUBANKS: What's that?

Mr.�LENO: Marry him. OK, that's the best way.

ULABY: Enough with the sniping, says TV critic Eric Deggans.

Mr.�ERIC DEGGANS (Television Critic): It's about time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Time for this increasingly ugly chapter of TV history to be over.

Mr.�DEGGANS: This has been the most public, most bruising, most disintegrating battle in the recent history of network television.

ULABY: But Deggans says one vital question remains.

Mr.�DEGGANS: Can the network who dug the biggest hole in recent history get itself out?

ULABY: Now, it's important to note that NBC was not hemorrhaging money just because of the miserable ratings earned by Leno and O'Brien. But NBC affiliates were, and they complained vociferously. Mark DiSantos(ph) runs an NBC affiliate in Peoria, Illinois.

Mr.�MARK DISANTOS: The changes that were made that affected "The Tonight Show" and the 9 o'clock lead-in to our late news have changed some viewing habits.

ULABY: But DiSantos hopes, now a deal has been struck, his late-night viewers will eventually come home. O'Brien's last show is on Friday, and NBC starts broadcasting the Winter Olympics a week after that. Maybe the dust will have settled by the time Leno brings back "The Tonight Show" on March 1st. Meanwhile, O'Brien cannot work on TV until September, but Deggans says rumors have him going to cable then, or Fox.

Mr.�DEGGANS: What we're hearing now is that creative people at Fox love the idea of bringing him in, but the executives are not sure.

ULABY: It's hard to blame them, given the way O'Brien's gone after NBC executives in the past few weeks.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr.�O'BRIEN: We're going to introduce new comedy bits that aren't so much funny as they are crazy expensive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Last night, O'Brien said before NBC kicks him off, he plans to run up the bills in the most absurd ways he can think of, like bringing in a last-minute new character, an insanely expensive sports car dressed up like a mouse, to the music of The Rolling Stones.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�O'BRIEN: Is it crazy expensive to play on the air, not to mention the rights to re-air this clip on the Internet? Hell, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Alas, O'Brien will not be legally allowed to make fun of NBC after leaving the network.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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