Its official: Conan O'Brien signed a contract to end his 17-year relationship with NBC on Thursday, collecting $32 million for himself, and an additional $12 million for his staff in the split, which paves the way for The Tonight Show to fall back into the hands of Jay Leno.
“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," Gavin Polone, O'Brien's manager, told The Wall Street Journal about the deal, which was mutually agreed upon at at 1 a.m. PST Thursday. “Now he just wants to get back on the air as quickly as possible.”
The contract includes a "non-disparagement clause," meaning O'Brien's days of hammering NBC execs are likely through, the paper reported. O'Brien, according to the contract, will not be able to pursue other opportunities until September 1st.
The network said Wednesday they would not be offering tickets to be in the studio audience for Conan’s show next week, meaning his final broadcast will air Friday. The final two days of guests indicate a star-studded finale, with Robin Williams and Barry Manilow slated for Thursday, and Tom Hanks and Will Ferrell scheduled for the Friday finale. Leno is expected to take over The Tonight Show on Monday, March 1 after NBC wraps up its coverage of the Winter Olympics.
The power struggle between O'Brien, Leno and NBC dates back to 2004, when the network, looking toward the future, resigned O'Brien with the promise he would be hosting the Tonight Show in 2009. When that time came, Leno, still drawing big ratings for the network, agreed to be O'Brien's lead-in with a prime time variety show the network heavily promoted this past fall. The strategy failed miserably, as NBC reported a 35 percent drop in ratings for Leno's 10 p.m. time slot, to go with O'Brien's poor ratings for The Tonight Show.
NBC, looking to change their course, cancelled Leno's variety show in January 2010 with the intent on moving him to a 30-minute show beginning at 11:35 p.m., with O'Brien and The Tonight Show beginning at 12:05 a.m. O'Brien, whose contact did not specify a start time for The Tonight Show, refused, leading to Thursday's split between the network and the host, which has gone down as one of the nastiest public spats in show business history.