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Conan O'Brien nears a deal to leave NBC's 'Tonight Show'

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, January 16, 2010; C08

PASADENA, CALIF.

NBC nearly closed a deal on Friday in which the network would pay to extricate itself from its contract with "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien, according to a source who has knowledge of the situation. The sum would approximate what NBC would have paid Conan to host the show for the next couple of years.

The deal was not expected to be wrapped up until over the holiday weekend, said the source, who requested anonymity because this person values being employed.

Conan would leave NBC only seven months after taking over "The Tonight Show," at a cost to NBC of close to $30 million, according to published reports.

At the top of Friday's show, the host made light of that scenario, saying: "Hi, I'm Conan O'Brien -- the future answer to a $200 'Jeopardy!' question."

In what would be an important concession on NBC's part, Conan might be able to turn up on another network -- as host of a late-night talk show -- as soon as next season.

Although NBC is willing to let Conan leave the network and take his talents elsewhere, the network has also tried to kick him as he walks out the door. In an interview with the New York Times, NBC Universal Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said Conan was being replaced on "Tonight" because of "an astounding failure by Conan," ratings-wise. In that interview, Ebersol also called jokes about the controversy that were made this week by Conan and CBS's David Letterman "chicken-hearted" and "gutless."

On Friday's show, Conan said: "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."

It's unclear whether next week will be Conan's last hosting the iconic late-night show. Conan had been lining up A-list talent for next week's shows, landing Tom Hanks for Tuesday. Coincidentally, Hanks was Conan's first real big "get" when he took over "Tonight."

It was widely presumed that next week would be Conan's last, after he issued a statement on Tuesday proclaiming his refusal to host the program at 12:05 a.m.

NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin on Sunday announced that the Conan-hosted "Tonight Show" would move to the later time to make room on NBC's lineup for Leno's return. Leno would move his 10 p.m. comedy show to 11:35 p.m., but it would be busted down from an hour to 30 minutes. "Tonight" would remain a one-hour program but would begin 30 minutes later, as would the Jimmy Fallon-hosted "Late Night."

Getting Leno out of prime time was a must, Gaspin said, once the "drumbeat" got loud enough from the direction of NBC stations that were threatening to preempt Leno at 10 p.m. That din started in early December, when station execs got November sweeps ratings results that showed how much ratings damage his 10 p.m. weekday show was doing to 11 p.m. local newscasts.

The drawn-out process of removing Conan from its schedule has sparked so much interest in the beleaguered late-night host that he beat Leno's prime-time ratings.

Meanwhile, Leno whined on his Friday show: "I'm getting beat up in the press. You know it's bad when Tiger Woods calls to offer you PR advice."

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