LOS ANGELES — In an agreement close to completion, “Tonight” host Conan O’Brien would leave NBC and free Jay Leno to reclaim the late-night show he stewarded for 17 years, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
Top NBC Universal executives and representatives for O’Brien on Friday were close to settling details of his departure, said the person, who lacked authority to discuss the issue and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Universal Studios president and COO Ron Meyer was among those involved in the talks, the person said.
The focus has been on how much O’Brien, who has time left on his NBC contract, would be paid for leaving and what limits NBC may put on his future employment at another network.
The deal under discussion would provide for a settlement of more than $30 million and allow him to start a new show as early as this fall, the person said.
O’Brien has two-and-a-half years left on his contract; reports of his annual salary vary widely, from $10 million to $25 million.
NBC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night.
The progress in negotiations didn’t stop O’Brien from once again hammering NBC in his “Tonight” monologue.
“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,” O’Brien said Friday.
Other late-night hosts, including David Letterman on CBS, have been using their shows to crack jokes about NBC’s late-night mess and the players. On Friday, Leno fired back.
“Even Dave Letterman is taking shots at me, which surprised me. Usually he’s just taking shots at the interns,” Leno said, a reference to the CBS host’s admission last year that he had affairs with women who worked on his show.
Letterman and Leno had vied for “Tonight” after longtime host Johnny Carson retired in 1992, and Leno won the hard-fought contest.
O’Brien landed “The Tonight Show” gig after successfully hosting “Late Night,” which airs an hour later, since 1993. But after debuting last May, he quickly stumbled in the ratings race against Letterman.
Leno’s prime-time weeknight show, which premiered last September, got its cancellation notice Sunday. Leno had reigned as ratings champ as host of “Tonight” but drew disappointing ratings with his experiment in prime time.
As a fix, NBC wanted to put Leno at 11:35 p.m. EST in a half-hour edition and push O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m. But O’Brien rejected the idea, saying he hadn’t been given the necessary time or support to establish himself as host.
Fox executives have expressed their admiration for O’Brien but said they haven’t taken steps to create a late-night show for him.