Anti-NBC Frenzy Continues Over Conan’s $40M Firing; Zucker Threatens to Ice O’Brien For Three Years



BREAKING NEWS! EXCLUSIVE! 11TH UPDATE, SUNDAY 8:50 AM: Below is Saturday Night Live‘s cold opening about the festering late night debacle about to end — now possibly Tuesday after the MLK long weekend — with NBC’s $40 million “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out” payment to Conan O’Brien that also frees him to compete against Jay Leno immediately. Best line of the show was SNL

Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers’: “This week you didn’t need Cinemax to see someone screwed on TV.” It’s amazing and bewildering that the network keeps vigorously promoting this comedy of errors to the media via video clips of its own employees denigrating and humiliating the beleaguered brand.

(I asked one SNL insider if there was any behind the scenes bitching from the suits because of the NBC bashing. “None at all.”) Perhaps, at this nadir, NBC has to put ratings above its own reputation. Or maybe there’s just no defense possible. Although Jeff Zucker keeps desperately trotting out more and more NBC execs — first entertainment boss Jeff Gaspin, then sports czar Dick Ebersol, then news topper Steve Capus — to give dictation to The New York Times in support of himself. (When did stenography replace reporting there?) In that article, Zucker tries to play the victim of a media frenzy — but it was a self-inflicted wound. Hollywood is now hearing from people around Zucker how he’s “‘wiped out from his Conan ordeal’,” Deadline New York Editor Mike Fleming learned last night, “Zucker apparently scrapped plans to fly to LA with his family for tonight’s Golden Globes broadcast by NBC or the NBC Universal after-party.

At least that is how he is feeling at the moment.” Meanwhile, someone posting O’Brien’s Tonight Show episodes at NBC’s weighed in on the Team Conan vs Team Leno battle. “When you highlight the January 13th Conan clip with your cursor, the tag reads ‘better than leno’,” a tipster showed me. Then there’s this zinger from O’Brien’s longtime rep Gavin Palone. The manager sent an email to CBS mogul Les Moonves, while this mess unfolded, asking whether “a long time ago you planted Jeff Zucker there as a way to destroy NBC from inside.” Ouch!

10TH UPDATE, FRIDAY 5:15 PM: A settlement of NBC vs Conan is close but not yet signed. “There are still issues to be worked out,” an insider reports back to me. This follows all-day negotiations between NBC and its attorneys, and Team Conan and their manager-agency-lawyer reps. “There’ve been some very intense conversations”.

All are under confidentiality agreements. So to what extent did NBC blink? Remember that all week, as I’ve been reporting, NBCU chief Jeff Zucker stuck to an extreme position that threatened to hold Conan to his contract and keep him off the air for 3 1/2 years and not pay him a penny of that $60M penalty fee if O’Brien doesn’t host The Tonight Show as the network promised. Instead of a prolonged and ugly battle, NBC has given in to Team Conan who’ve insisted their guy exits only with a lot of cash and freedom. How much cash?

“Zucker’s NBC spin puts it at $25 million. But it’s a lot closer to $40 million than $25 million,” my insider says. “And Conan was adamant that NBC take care of the people close to him — [executive producer] Jeff Ross and the staff who moved out to Los Angeles.” According to the pact, Conan leaves The Tonight Show on January 22nd. Meanwhile, he’s free to go anywhere and compete with Jay. This is that Ron Meyer-negotiated deal (which I first reported yesterday at 3 PM). The Universal Studios president/COO was asked to step in secretly by WME agents Ari Emanuel when Team Conan and NBC were so far apart they weren’t even on speaking terms. “They [NBC Universal] were lucky to have Ron.” I’m told the deal might close as soon as Saturday. And NBC’s PR nightmare will end. Or will it? In his Friday night monologue, Conan defended himself against NBC sports czar Dick Ebersole’s very public (and inappropriate) takedown: “In the press this week, NBC has been calling me every name in the book. In fact, they think I’m such an idiot, they now want me to run the network.”

9TH UPDATE, FRIDAY 7 AM: I can confirm that Team Conan reassembled in Los Angeles last night, and O’Brien’s reps are still “figuring out how to settle” but at the same time still lobbying NBCU chief Jeff Zucker to keep Conan as host of The Tonight Show. Their negotiations continued with NBC. Unlike the network which wants a resolution by end of today, the agents-lawyers-managers are in no hurry to accept what NBC is offering to end this late night crisis and the resulting PR nightmare. Team Conan is banking on it getting worse, not better, with every passing hour and day as the media and public stay obsessed with the network vs Tonight Show host story and all its drama. “This will get off the front pages,” NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker predicted to Team Conan. “You are 100% wrong,” one of O’Brien’s reps shot back. Much, much more after the jump…

8TH UPDATE, THURSDAY 8:40 PM: Not surprisingly, NBC wants to put a stop to this late night PR nightmare before end of day tomorrow. The only question now is to what degree the network will blink to do that. After days of sticking to an extreme position that threatened to hold Conan O’Brien to his contract and keep him off the air for 3 1/2 years and not pay him a penny of that penalty fee if he doesn’t host The Tonight Showsee below). Indeed, he gets almost everything — except of course The Tonight Show, which Leno would host in a do-over. But what a difference a few days make. Meanwhile, Team Zucker continue their villification of Conan for defying NBC’s late night plans. I’ve already reported how Zucker is blaming Conan for this mess because “he let me down” when given The Tonight Show. Now Dick Ebersol, who as NBC Universal Sports chairman is Tweedledee to Zucker’s Tweedledum, is talking about “an astounding failure by Conan”. (Dickwad, I predict you’ll fail February 12-28 by giving us another Olympics snorefest.) as the network promised, NBC appears to be giving in to Team Conan. In that Ron Meyer-negotiated deal I first reported at 3 PM, Conan receives a lot of cash for his freedom (

Meanwhile, news reports say Conan O’Brien placed his set on Craigslist for sale Thursday afternoon and announced it on the show later that night:

TITLE:4 SALE: Barely-Used Late Night Show -Make Me An Offer
DESCRIPTION: This is a chance of a lifetime to own your very own late night talk show–guaranteed to last for up to seven months!! Really must see to appreciate.
Information for potential buyers:
– Measures 100’ x 100’ x 32’ – plenty of room for a futon!
– Designed for 11:35 but can be easily moved
– Band can be sold separately
– Buyer must honor Barry Manilow booking next Thursday
MAKE ME YOUR BEST OFFER!!!!! (Also willing to trade for Coldplay tickets.)

THURSDAY 6:45 PM, 7TH UPDATE, : During tonight’s monologue, the for-the-moment host of The Tonight Show referred to my scoop that NBCU chief Jeff Zucker was threatening to put him on ice for 3 1/2 years. “Hi, I’m Conan O’Brien, NBC’s ‘Employee of the Month’. There’s a rumor that NBC is so upset with me, they want to keep me off the air for 3 years. My response to that is, if NBC doesn’t want people to see me, just leave me on NBC.”

Bada bing. “No matter what happens, it’s been a real honor to sit in the same chair as Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and Jay Leno.”

THURSDAY 3 PM, 6TH UPDATE: I’ve just learned that, for the past 48 hours, Universal Studios President/COO Ron Meyer was secretly drafted during this NBC late night crisis to negotiate a settlement between the network and Team Conan after O’Brien and his reps were threatened by NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker (see below). WME boss Ari Emanuel asked him to step in. “Ron is a former agent, one of the biggest in Hollywood. He could get this done, so NBC used him,” a source just told me. “No one would talk to each other, and they talked to Ron. He got everybody to talk to everybody.” The deal as sketched puts Jay Leno back hosting The Tonight Show, and Conan O’Brien exiting with a lot of money. But there are still some terms to be worked out — which is why there hasn’t been any announcement yet. But I’m warned that “anything can happen” now that Meyer did his duty, and NBC is back in charge. I can tell you there are definitely people around NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker who want to keep Conan in place at The Tonight Show. “But Zucker is digging in his heels because of the bad press. He’s being stubborn,” a Team Conan insider just told me. Stay tuned.

THURSDAY 2:15 PM, 5TH UPDATE: NBC isn’t confirming Internet reports of a done deal that Jay is in, Conan is out, as host of The Tonight Show at 11:35 PM. According to my insiders, Team Conan is denying the reports. But O’Brien’s reps acknowledge: “It’s a very fluid situation”. Meanwhile, I’ve learned Team Conan didn’t know NBC had just put out that press release boasting about Conan’s heated-up ratings. “He’s been killing in recent weeks. NBC can see that.”

THURSDAY, 2 PM, 4TH UPDATE: Amid unconfirmed Internet reports that NBC’s Leno-Conan switcharoo for hosting The Tonight Show at 11:35 PM is now a done deal for Jay but not Conan, the network just sent out a news release noting that “NBC’s The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien has topped all broadcast and cable competition in the key late-night demographic of adults 18-49 for the week of January 4-8. At 12:35 a.m. ET. Last week also saw Conan deliver bigger audiences than CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman and the ABC lineup of Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel Live in adults, men and women 18-34, men 18-49 and men 25-54. Conan has finished #1 or tied for #1 among broadcast networks in adult 18-49 rating for nine of the last 11 weeks. The median age of Conan’s audience last week was 45.6, nine years younger than Nightline‘s” 55.0 and 11 years younger than Letterman’s 57.3.”

So, let me get this straight: NBC is crowing about the numbers of the guy they want off The Tonight Show and off NBC in favor of Jay Leno. Yes, that makes a lot of sense — in Zuckerland.

THURSDAY 8:20 AM, 3RD UPDATE: NBC Universal, faced with Conan O’Brien’s defiance, is taking what insiders tell me is “a super tough threatening position” over his refusal to host The Tonight Show at 12:05 AM instead of 11:35 PM. “Someone’s got to show NBCU that big greedy corporate dickheads can’t win,” one of Conan’s manager-agent-lawyer-public relations “Team Conan” representatives told me. And while Jeff Zucker has not stepped up and taken responsibility for this mess he set in in motion in the first place — by replacing Leno with Conan O’Brien as host of The Tonight Show even though Jay was No. 1 in his time slot at the time — he’s been busy behind the scenes. I’ve already reported how Zucker has been privately blaming Conan for the current debacle, saying “He let me down” because The Tonight Show for the last 7 months since O’Brien took over has been losing out to David Letterman in both eyeballs and advertiser-coveted demographics. (Bullshit, Zucker, you can’t keep blaming others for your Zuck-ups.) Bad enough that Zucker made Conan hear about the planned move in the first place from the media.

But now the NBCU chief has been talking tough during the negotiations with Team Conan. To counter O’Brien’s principled public statement which the late night host issued this week, Zucker “is threatening to ice Conan”, according to his reps. “Zucker said, ‘I’ll keep you off the air for 3 1/2 years.’ Which doesn’t have a chance in hell of happening. What I really think Zucker wants is to hold him off the market for at least six months to a year until the dust settles and Leno is secure and Conan is squelched.” One rep even compared Zucker to “Darth Vader” because the NBCU chief “has been so evil” about this. His 3 1/2-years threat comes because O’Brien has another 2 1/2 half years left to run on his contract, and NBC could also enforce a clause that keeps Conan off television for a year after that.

According to NBC’s stated plans, The Jay Leno Show would leaves its unsuccessful primetime 10 PM time slot on February 12th, and then move to 11:35 PM after NBC finishes broadcasting the Vancouver Winter Olympics on February 28th. That’s when The Jay Leno Show arrives in late night, and Conan’s show pushes back by 1/2 an hour. To NBC’s way of thinking, it can kill two birds with one stone: it won’t have to pay Jay that hefty $80 million penalty for taking The Jay Leno Show off the air because the program has “merely” moved timeslots. And it won’t have to pay Conan that fat $60 million penalty for removing him from The Tonight Show because that program, too, has “merely” moved timeslots. But, as David Letterman so succinctly put it this week, “At 12:05 AM, that’s not The Tonight Show, that’s The Tomorrow Show! As I’ve written previously, the Pottery Barn rule is applicable here: “You break it, you buy it.” It could and it should cost NBC.

But I’ve learned O’Brien’s reps now believe that Zucker wants to jettison Conan altogether and put Jay back at The Tonight Show at its usual starting time. So, to prevent O’Brien competing at NBC or elsewhere with Leno’s attempt to lure back his late night audience, NBCU’s Zucker has come up with this plot to “ice” Conan for the length of his NBC Tonight Show contract. It’s dastardly, it’s cowardly, and it could be damn effective. But there’s no way Team Conan says they’re going to let that happen. Bad enough NBCU horribly humiliated Conan and, as he so rightly pointed out in his statement, will damage The Tonight Show by moving it down a half-hour. With the 12:05 AM start, its ratings will never recover. After NBC made that decision, the phones at his WME agency rang off the hook with calls from every network, cable, and pay channel looking to hire O’Brien. And there’s every reason for him to flee. But, if Conan exits voluntarily or involuntarily, it will take at least a year before a new show is readied and on the air. He risks losing his fan base during that time. And he’ll be forever tagged by the failure. So now it’s open warfare between NBC and O’Brien’s reps.

Zucker’s hardline stance became evident during that 1:45 PM Tuesday meeting at NBC Universal this week shortly after Conan issued his statement of defiance. On one side of the room were NBCU bigwigs Jeff Gaspin and Marc Graboff. On the other were O’Brien’s reps: manager Gavin Palone, WME agent and board member Rick Rosen, and the newest member of Team O’Brien, Hollywood litigator Patty Glaser, who was hired last Sunday and is WME’s legal shark of choice. Not attending were Zucker (hiding back in NYC), or WME boss Ari Emanuel (leading the WME retreat in Rancho Mirage). One of Hollywood’s toughest negotiators and the model for Entourage agent Ari Gold played by Jeremy Piven, Ari. Even so, Gavin can be as mean as a rabid dog, Rick’s agency reps 60% of the TV talent, and Glaser is a pitbull. For them, this kind of mano-a-mano negotiation is bloodsport. But even they were shocked by Zucker’s scheming.

“Patty came in and said, ‘You can’t do this.’ They claim they can legally, but everyone knows it’s ambiguous. The contract is not clearly expressed and they are misinterpreting it,” one of my sources related. “So everything now is at a standstill. There’s been a proposal, and a counter-proposal. This will end up in front of a judge if someone [at NBCU] doesn’t wise up.”

I’d learned both NBCU chief Jeff Zucker as well as Gaspin were told about Conan’s statement publicly promising to protect the integrity of The Tonight Show he’d inherited. It made Zucker furious.  O’Brien’s reps didn’t want O’Brien to speak out. “They were not thrilled. They told him it would undercut his negotiating leverage,” one source revealed to me. “But Conan wouldn’t listen to them. He wanted to make it.” And yet, because of the controversy, O’Brien’s Tonight Show ratings have risen. While Leno hasn’t received a similar bump, Conan’s number went up to 1.9 in the overnights. Certainly, that has to give NBC pause, right? Apparently not. Sources tell me there’s only “the slightest of chances” that Zucker will relent and keep O’Brien and The Tonight Show intact at 11:35 PM. As for Conan, if he’s released, he wants to ensure his executive producer Jeff Ross and other staff who moved out from New York to Los Angeles “are taken care of”. As for himself, “he’s not thinking about strategy. He’s saying, “I just want enough money to feed my family.'”

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