Conan, we hardly new ye.
After just seven months as “Tonight Show” host — the shortest tenure of any in this franchise’s long and illustrious history — Conan O’Brien will leave NBC for good after Friday night's show.
O’Brien himself initiated this quickie divorce last week after the network offered to push “Tonight” back to 12:05, and the settlement achieved Thursday suggests that he got the house, car, boat, kids and bank account to boot.
NBC? It ends up pretty much where it started from, with Jay Leno returning as “Tonight” host on March 1.
O’Brien walks with a $45 million settlement, about a quarter of which will go to more than 100 staffers who will also be out of work after Friday night. However, he will not be allowed to launch a new show on another network until Sept. 1.
NBC issued a terse statement announcing the settlement early Thursday, immediately followed by another lavishing praise on the new host: “We’re pleased that Jay is returning to host the franchise that he helmed brilliantly and successfully for many years,” said Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal TV chairman.
So what about the future? Here are four key questions:
1. Where will Conan end up next?
Fox has expressed interest, and you can be certain that negations have started. The network has the right to clear an 11 p.m. show, which might not be a popular decision with many affiliates that have long-term deals with program suppliers. One solution might be a simulcast with FX — but affiliates might also resist that.
2. How will Jay do back at 11:35?
Logic dictates “the same as before,” but this ferociously mishandled transition (a nice word) has pulverized logic. Leno returns to a time period that David Letterman has dominated since last summer, but Leno’s taken a grievous public-relations hit — even though NBC inflicted the damage. Nevertheless, true blue Jay fans will stick by their man.
3. How will Dave do?
Will he slip back into second place, after tasting first for the last six months? “From an audience standpoint, any kind of drama or controversy fuels late night audience growth,” says Sissy Biggers, former director of late night for NBC, and overseer of “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live.” “It’s like two generals meeting on the battlefield again, and facing each other in another moment in the war. That will be fun to watch.” She adds, “It’s been wonderful for Dave to have this [extra] energy.”
4. How will Conan come out of this mess?
Says Biggers: “You know the saying — you’re nothing in the TV business until you’ve been fired and a good public firing is what gives a performer additional chops. He’s in a new category — he’s seasoned, and I can’t imagine he didn’t mature and learn a lot from this.” In other words, Conan will be just fine.