Our long national nightmare is finally over – yes, NBC has hammered out an agreement to end the Late Night Wars.
Bringing to an end one of the more contentious – and public – squabbles in TV history, NBC will buy “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien out of the remaining 2+ years of his contract for a whopping $32 million, with another $12 million going to his staff as severence. Jay Leno, O’Brien’s predecessor on the “Tonight Show” and a prime-time failure, will return to his familiar 11:30 turf once NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics concludes next month. O’Brien, meanwhile, will be free to return to TV on a competitor network this September.
We already talked about how they got into this mess, so I won’t burden you with it again (just urge you to go back and read the earlier entry – and tell a hundred or so friends to do the same … ). But this is an ugly, expensive end to a sad tale of greed – one in which there are no winners. NBC President Jeff Zucker looks like a fool, having tried unsuccessfully to have it both ways and ending up with nothing more than the status quo and a lot of expenses. Leno – who was worried enough about how he was being portrayed in the media that he took time on his show to explain his position and unsuccessfully change the tone of the debate – still comes across as the guy who just wouldn’t go away, unwilling to live up to an agreement he made five years ago. O’Brien, meanwhile, will resurface in the fall with an new show, and pockets 32 mill for his troubles – but he still has to live with the tag “fired ‘Tonight Show’ host”.
Everyone is trying to stay amicable, but it will be interesting to see how O’Brien handles his final “Tonight Show” tomorrow night. He’s been beating his NBC bosses up pretty good since this whole controversy broke, but I suspect he’ll take the high road in his finale. Not only does he want to be remembered as a good guy, but he’s been with the peacock for a long time (remember, he started out as a writer on “SNL”). He’ll have his largest audience ever tomorrow night, and you know whatever he says will live on forever on YouTube. Count on him keeping it classy.