Conan O'Brien exploring options


Conan O'Brien is a free agent after his $33 million settlement with NBC was finally completed early Thursday morning -- but his hiatus probably won't last long.

As part of the overall payout from the Peacock, worth about $52.6 million with staff severance and shutdown costs, O'Brien will be allowed to join another network Sept. 1. With his demo ratings on "The Tonight Show" and his online popularity soaring during the final two weeks of his seven-month tenure, the comedian already is being courted by a number of networks.

Because O'Brien was formally under contract with NBC until Thursday morning, no formal talks have been initiated, but there have been a lot of informal inquiries.

Fox is the most logical option as that network has been trying to get into the late-night fray for decades and its brass repeatedly have stated their interest in O'Brien, whose core younger audience is a perfect fit for Fox's target demo.

Several cablers, including Fox sibling FX, USA, TNT/TBS, Comedy Central, HBO and Showtime, reportedly also have sent out feelers to explore the possibility of bringing O'Brien into their folds.

O'Brien's longtime manager Gavin Polone wouldn't be drawn on specifics about his client's plans but noted that he would like to "take advantage of all the momentum" on TV and online, where the popularity of "I'm with Coco"/"Team Conan" movements is growing rapidly.

With his quirky, offbeat sensibility, the comedian could be well suited for the cable world.

And he could feasibly do both cable and broadcast, said Shari Anne Brill, senior vp at ad buyer Carat.

Because clearing a late-night show with O'Brien on Fox would require extensive discussions with the network's affiliates that have commitments for airing off-net comedies in the 11 p.m. hour, O'Brien could debut on FX and then move to the broadcast network at a later date, she said.

First-run syndication is a longer shot. While Sony TV pursued a syndicated show with Jay Leno before he decided to stay at NBC for a primetime stint, syndicators do not seem in a hurry to raise their hands.

The reason: The main target for such a show would be the Fox stations, which, if interested in a late-night show with O'Brien, would give their blessing to Fox and get it from the network.

The dramatic denouement between O'Brien and NBC -- which was done at 1 a.m. PT and completely signed off at 3 a.m. -- was a fitting finale for the twists and turns of the past weeks.

The final $52.6 million tab include the $33 million settlement for O'Brien, about $7 million to pay out the contracts of "Tonight" sidekick Andy Richter and executive producer Jeff Ross and the rest going for severance expenses and shutdown costs.

The payoffs for the show's staffers, apparently more generous than the standard exit deals, are being supplemented by checks from O'Brien.

"He just wants to make sure they are taken care of," Polone said.

Ironically, despite the acrimonious divorce, O'Brien will stay in business with NBC through his company Conaco, which will remain based at NBC until the end of this development season and has several projects in contention at the network.

Also staying behind are the characters created by O'Brien on "Late Night" and "Tonight," whose rights are owned by NBC.

During his second-to-last "Tonight" on Thursday, O'Brien "revealed" some provisions from his contract with NBC.

Among them: "I am prohibited from coming within 500 yards of 11:30," and "I'm not allowed to make fun of NBC programming; I have to let the programming speak for itself."

Meanwhile, announcing his March 1 return to "Tonight" on his primetime show Thursday, Leno said, "I have chosen to stay on the Titanic."

Analyzing the aftermath of NBC's late-night shifts during the past seven months, most media pundits agree the network has been hurt.

"The decisions have hurt both NBC in the ratings and more importantly with their viewers who have to question whether the management at NBC knows what they are doing," Katz TV programming head Bill Carroll said.

John Rash, senior vp at Campbell Mithun, called the late-night fight "a distraction" at a time when the viewers' attention should've been focused on the upcoming Olympics.

NBC's fortnight of Olympics coverage will actually help put the late-night drama behind, according to Brill.

"It gives NBC a hiatus and hope that the public has some amnesia," she said.

As for the effects on Leno's ratings on "Tonight," Brill said, "It may hurt him for a little while, but I think the audience will come back."

James Hibberd in Los Angeles and Paul J. Gough in New York contributed to this report.
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