Understanding the Conan Crisis: What Could Happen

What’s really going on behind-the-scenes — and three scenarios on how things might play out

Last Updated: January 15, 2010 @ 2:07 AM

How will the Conan Crisis play itself out?

Now that O’Brien has made it clear he’s not moving "The Tonight Show" to 12:05 a.m., it’s clear Jeff Gaspin’s compromise initiative has failed. Jay Leno will likely soon return to "The Tonight Show," Jimmy Fallon will stay put at 12:35 and O’Brien will begin looking for work.

The pace of developments slowed considerably Wednesday. Insiders indicated that negotiations between Team Conan and Team Gaspin continued over the details of what’s now widely expected to be a Hollywood divorce settlement.

A network insider told TheWrap that the nobody at NBC wants the negotiation process to drag out. It’s in the Peacock’s best interest for a settlement to be reached as quickly as possible, and current betting is that’s how things will play out.

But it’s not a guarantee. Here are three scenarios:

The Let’s All Move On Option. Even though NBC has clearly screwed over O’Brien big-time (yes, that’s an opinion, not a fact), Jeff Gaspin and Jeff Zucker are still running a business. That’s why they’re unlikely to just pay Conan all he’s owed and let him start a new talk show somewhere else whenever he wants.

But while that won’t happen, NBC clearly has the most reason to shut down this crisis ASAP. Every day that talks drag on without resolution is another day for the media (and its own hosts) to babble on about just how messed up things have gotten.

So under the "move on" game plan, NBC gives more than it gets: It pays O’Brien a hefty multimillion dollar penalty and lets him walk to another network sooner, rather than later.

That last point could be key for O’Brien’s camp. While no firm deals appear to be on the table, he no doubts want maximum flexibility to be able to get back on the air as soon as possible.

"If it were up to (Conan’s camp), they’d start a new show next week," said one insider familiar with the O’Brien posse’s thinking.

NBC’s natural instinct, of course, is to keep Conan on ice– helping viewers break their 17-year nightly O’Brien habit.

If it wants a speedy solution, however, it may have to bend on that point.

And with Conan drawing more public support each day, NBC may just decide caving makes sense.

The Nuclear Option: Or, let’s take this to court.

Conan’s reps have made sure NBC knows it’s got some serious muscle on the case: Lawyer Patty Glaser, known for her bulldog ways, is on retainer.

Likewise, NBC has floated the story in several outlets that O’Brien’s contract doesn’t actually give him a timeslot guarantee — the heart of Team Conan’s complaint about NBC’s actions. As long as it’s called "Tonight," Conan has no case, these NBC insiders argue.

If things go south, expect this to be the crux of a case. But there are no indications either party really wants to go down this road.

With its Comcast merger pending, NBC has no desire to see months of charges and countercharges exposed in the press.

What’s more, Jeff Gaspin knows NBC needs to mend some fences with a creative community outraged over the network’s decision to dump scripted shows for Leno at 10. Making peace is hard to do when you’re beating up one of your most loyal employees for daring to ask that his contract be honored.

As for Conan, his instant transformation into underdog this week thanks to the "people of earth" treatise has given him enormous good will. Does he want to risk that by a court battle that will no doubt see him painted by NBC as a money-grubbing Hollywood type who can’t admit he wasn’t right for "Tonight"?

The Split the Difference Option. If Hollywood history as a guide, both camps will probably end up simply compromising in order to avoid a legal fight — and any protracted ill will.

It’s not that Conan and NBC are likely to be working together any time soon and need to maintain some shred of a relationship.

But NBC probably is loathe to get into a war with Conan’s reps at William Morris Endeavor, who control a slew of major TV talent — and thus, in theory, the keys to any NBC primetime comeback.

Likewise, Conan may not want to hold out forever waiting for NBC to give him everything he thinks he deserves. The sooner he settles out of his current deal, the quicker he can start the process of finding a new home with parents who’ll love and respect him.

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