Conan Could Be Free by Fall

Some details of a possible exit deal have started to emerge. Plus: Tom Hanks could be stopping by “Tonight” soon

Last Updated: January 15, 2010 @ 3:53 PM

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While a deal to extract Conan O’Brien out of his NBC contract may or may not get done Friday, some details of the likely agreement are starting to emerge.

There was buzz that a tentative exit agreement could be reached before the weekend. But given the complex nature of the talks, and the heightened tension level following Dick Ebersol’s decision to go nuclear on CoCo, any predictions seem risky.

And while both NBC and Conan insiders dismissed reports that O’Brien’s last "Tonight" will be a week from today, there could be some logic behind eventually making that the case. The reason: "Tonight" will begin a long-scheduled week-long hiatus on Jan. 22.

Whatever Conan’s "Tonight" expiration date, big stars are starting to line up for a possible farewell tour. Tom Hanks, for example, is said to be a likely guest in the next few days, a source said.

As for the contract talks, the two big issues from the beginning have been how much of a penalty NBC will pay for removing O’Brien from 11:35 p.m. and how long it will prevent him from jumping to another network.

No figures have been floated yet, but a payoff in excess of $10 million wouldn’t be a shocker. That said, O’Brien’s team has long made it clear money is not their primary consideration — though nobody wants to leave NBC feeling any more screwed over than they think they’ve already been.

The big issue, then, is flexibility — that is, the ability to switch to another network as soon as possible.

One scenario being floated would have O’Brien able to launch a new show as early as the fall, most likely late August or September — a seven-month cooling-off period.

"That would be fair," said one person in the O’Brien camp.

Whether NBC would agree remains an open question. But all sides dismissed as ludicrous the notion, reported by one website, that NBC would try to keep O’Brien off the air for nearly 4 years.

"He has 2 1/2 years left on his deal. How would they even do that?" one insider said.

Of course, O’Brien has to have a new show to go to. While Fox has flirted with O’Brien, no real talks are likely to begin until he’s got a settlement deal from NBC.

As Variety reported Wednesday evening, Fox will need to clear an O’Brien show market by market. And with affiliates already smarting over having to give up a bigger share of their retransmission consent dollars to the network, they might not be eager to accept the risky notion of a Conan late night show.

But maybe O’Brien wouldn’t need full affiliate clearance right off the bat. Indeed, he might relish being an underdog at Fox — starting slowly and building ratings and clearances over one or two years.

One executive familiar with the Fox way of thinking indicated O’Brien has long been seen as a great fit for the network’s brand. The last week has also helped: By defying NBC’s wishes to move to 12:05, O’Brien has become an underdog, a rebel — just the kind of scrappiness Fox viewers seem to love.

Besides money and timing, another negotiating point may be how to compensate the hundreds of loyal O’Brien-ites who decamped from New York to follow him west to Los Angeles. If O’Brien needs to cool his heels for six months or more, but wants to keep his staff intact for a new show, they’ll need to be paid.

Don’t be surprised if Conan’s reps raise the issue of severance, perhaps even diverting part of O’Brien’s exit monies to staffers. That’s just speculation, however.

Another topic that might come up in the talks (but probably hasn’t yet): What to do with the extensive, brand new studio and offices NBC built for O’Brien on the Universal lot. The pricetag: Roughly $50 million.

This might seem a longshot, but could it be possible NBC might be willing to lease the studios to whichever network lands O’Brien? It’s understood O’Brien’s team wouldn’t be opposed to that notion, but it’s doubtful such a relatively minor detail has come up yet.