BREAKING NEWS! 14TH UPDATE, TUESDAY 10:45 AM: I’ve learned that NBC late night chief Rick Ludwin, a big Conan O’Brien supporter, was not consulted by The Two Jeffs — bigwigs Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin. “When the decision was made, Gaspin and Zucker never brought Rick into it,” an insider told me this morning in disbelief. Meanwhile, sources tell me that private emails have been going out from high-level executives at NBC’s soon-to-be-owner Comcast saying, “What a mess.” The last remaining issue holding up the official announcement that Conan is out, and Leno in, at The Tonight Show is O’Brien’s continuing insistence that his staff, especially those who followed him from NY to LA, be taken care of by NBC.
13TH UPDATE, TUESDAY 9 AM: NBC Universal Jeff Zucker last night told a shocked Charlie Rose in an exclusive conversation that the network’s late night moves have resulted in “death threats”. Playing the victim yet again, Zucker is tongue-tied when it’s suggested he should fall on his sword for all his missteps that have led NBC to be “in shambles”, as Rose said at the outset. Also, my insiders are accusing Zucker of lying on national television by telling Rose that there was no guarantee to Conan that The Tonight Show would start at 11:35 PM. “If there hadn’t been, do you think NBC would be paying him almost $40 million?” The full interview is here.13TH UPDATE, TUESDAY 9 AM: NBC Universal Jeff Zucker last night told a shocked Charlie Rose in an exclusive conversation that the network’s late night moves have resulted in “death threats”. The full interview is here.
12TH UPDATE, TUESDAY 6 AM: Last night Jay Leno talked in a serious and self defensive way about the late night fiasco and the circumstances surrounding his return as host of The Tonight Show :
“I thought maybe I should address this. At least give you my view of what has been going on here at NBC. Oh, let’s start in 2004. 2004 I’m sitting in my office, an NBC executive comes in and says to me, listen, Conan O’Brien has gotten offers from other networks. We don’t want him to go, so we’re going to give him The Tonight Show. I said, ‘Well, I’ve been number one for 12 years.’ They said, ‘We know that, but we don’t think you can sustain that.’ I said, ‘OK. How about until I fall to No. 2, then you fire me?’ ‘No, we made this decision.’ I said, ‘That’s fine.’ Don’t blame Conan O’Brien. Nice guy, good family guy, great guy. He and I have talked and not a problem since then. That’s what managers and people do, they try to get something for their clients. I said, ‘I’ll retire just to avoid what happened the last time.’ OK.
So time goes by and we stay No. 1 up until the day we leave. We hand [applause]. No, no. OK, but I’m leaving before my contract is out. About 6 to 8 months early. So before I could go anywhere else, I would be at least a year or 18 months before I could go and do a show somewhere else. I said to NBC, ‘Would you release me from my contract.’ They said, ‘We want to keep you here.’ OK. What are your ideas? They said, ‘How about primetime?’ I said, ‘That will never work.’ ‘No, no, we want to put you on at 10:00. We have done focus groups. People will love you at 10:00. Look at these studies showing Jay’s chin at 10:00. People will go crazy.’ Didn’t seem like a good idea at the time. I said, ‘Alright, can I keep my staff?’ There are 175 people that work here. I said, ‘Can I keep my staff?’ Yes, you can. Let’s try it. We guarantee you 2 years on the air, guaranteed. ‘Now for the first 4 or 5 months against original shows like CSI, you’ll get killed, but in the spring and summer when the reruns come, that’s when you’ll pick up.’ OK, great. I agree to that.
Four months go by, we don’t make it. Meanwhile, Conan’s show during the summer, we’re not on, was not doing well. The great hope was that we would help him. Well, we didn’t help him any, OK. They come and go, ‘This show isn’t working. We want to let you go.’ Can you let me out of my contract? No, you’re still a valuable asset to this company. ‘How valuable can I be? You fired me twice. How valuable can I be?’ OK. So then, the affiliates are not happy. The affiliates are the ones that own the TV stations. They’re the ones that sort of makes the decisions, ‘They’re not happy with your performance and Conan is not doing well at 11:30.’ I said, ‘What’s your idea?’ They said, ‘Well, look, how about you do a half hour show at 11:30?’ Now, where I come from, when your boss gives you a job and you don’t do it well, I think we did a good job here, but we didn’t’ get the ratings, so you get humbled. I said, ‘OK, I’m not crazy about doing a half hour, but OK. What do you want to do with Conan?’ ‘We’ll put him on at midnight, or 12:05, keeps The Tonight Show, does all that, he gets the whole hour.’ I said, OK. You think Conan will go for that?’ ‘Yes, yes. [laughter] Almost guarantee you.’ I said OK. Shake hands, that’s it. I don’t have a manager, I don’t have an agent, that’s my handshake deal.
Next thing I see Conan has a story in the paper saying he doesn’t want to do that. They come back to me and they say, ‘If he decides to walk and doesn’t want to do it, do you want the show back?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I’ll take the show back. If that’s what he wants to do. This way, we keep our people working, fine.’ So that’s pretty much where we are. It looks like we might be back at 11:30, I’m not sure. I don’t know. [applause] I don’t know. But through all of this – through all of this, Conan O’Brien has been a gentleman. He’s a good guy. I have no animosity towards him. This is all business. If you don’t get the ratings, they take you off the air. I think you know this town, you can do almost anything. You get ratings they keep you. I don’t get ratings, he wants. That was NBC’s solution. It didn’t work so we might have an answer for you tomorrow. So, we’ll see. That’s basically where it is.”
EXCLUSIVE! 11TH UPDATE, SUNDAY 8:50 AM: Below is Saturday Night Live‘s cold opening about the festering late night debacle about to end — now possibly Tuesday after the MLK long weekend — with NBC’s $40 million “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out” payment to Conan O’Brien that also frees him to compete against Jay Leno immediately. Best line of the show was SNL Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers’: “This week you didn’t need Cinemax to see someone screwed on TV.” It’s amazing and bewildering that the network keeps vigorously promoting this comedy of errors to the media via video clips of its own employees denigrating and humiliating the beleaguered brand. (I asked one SNL insider if there was any behind the scenes bitching from the suits because of the NBC bashing. “None at all.”) Perhaps, at this nadir, NBC has to put ratings above its own reputation. Or maybe there’s just no defense possible. Although Jeff Zucker keeps desperately trotting out more and more NBC execs — first entertainment boss Jeff Gaspin, then sports czar Dick Ebersol, then news topper Steve Capus — to give dictation to The New York Times in support of himself. (When did stenography replace reporting there?) In that article, Zucker tries to play the victim of a media frenzy — but it was a self-inflicted wound. Hollywood is now hearing from people around Zucker how he’s “‘wiped out from his Conan ordeal’,” Deadline New York Editor Mike Fleming learned last night, “Zucker apparently scrapped plans to fly to LA with his family for tonight’s Golden Globes broadcast by NBC or the NBC Universal after-party. At least that is how he is feeling at the moment.” Meanwhile, viewers weighed in on O’Brien’s Tonight Show episodes at NBC’s Hulu.com in the Team Conan vs Team Leno battle. Tags read “better than leno”, “amazing” and “conan>leno”, while tags for the Leno clips say “backstabber”, “not funny”, “hack”. Then there’s this zinger from O’Brien’s longtime rep Gavin Palone. The manager sent an email to CBS mogul Les Moonves, while this mess unfolded, asking whether “a long time ago you planted Jeff Zucker there as a way to destroy NBC from inside.” Ouch!
10TH UPDATE, FRIDAY 5:15 PM: A settlement of NBC vs Conan is close but not yet signed. “There are still issues to be worked out,” an insider reports back to me. This follows all-day negotiations between NBC and its attorneys, and Team Conan and their manager-agency-lawyer reps. “There’ve been some very intense conversations”. All are under confidentiality agreements. So to what extent did NBC blink? Remember that all week, as I’ve been reporting, NBCU chief Jeff Zucker stuck to an extreme position that threatened to hold Conan to his contract and keep him off the air for 3 1/2 years and not pay him a penny of that $60M penalty fee if O’Brien doesn’t host The Tonight Show as the network promised. Instead of a prolonged and ugly battle, NBC has given in to Team Conan who’ve insisted their guy exits only with a lot of cash and freedom. How much cash? “Zucker’s NBC spin puts it at $25 million. But it’s a lot closer to $40 million than $25 million,” my insider says. “And Conan was adamant that NBC take care of the people close to him — [executive producer] Jeff Ross and the staff who moved out to Los Angeles.” According to the pact, Conan leaves The Tonight Show on January 22nd. Meanwhile, he’s free to go anywhere and compete with Jay. This is that Ron Meyer-negotiated deal (which I first reported yesterday at 3 PM). The Universal Studios president/COO was asked to step in secretly by WME agents Ari Emanuel when Team Conan and NBC were so far apart they weren’t even on speaking terms. “They [NBC Universal] were lucky to have Ron.” I’m told the deal might close as soon as Saturday. And NBC’s PR nightmare will end. Or will it? In his Friday night monologue, Conan defended himself against NBC sports czar Dick Ebersole’s very public (and inappropriate) takedown: “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.”
9TH UPDATE, FRIDAY 7 AM: I can confirm that Team Conan reassembled in Los Angeles last night, and O’Brien’s reps are still “figuring out how to settle” but at the same time still lobbying NBCU chief Jeff Zucker to keep Conan as host of The Tonight Show. Their negotiations continued with NBC. Unlike the network which wants a resolution by end of today, the agents-lawyers-managers are in no hurry to accept what NBC is offering to end this late night crisis and the resulting PR nightmare. Team Conan is banking on it getting worse, not better, with every passing hour and day as the media and public stay obsessed with the network vs Tonight Show host story and all its drama. “This will get off the front pages,” NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker predicted to Team Conan. “You are 100% wrong,” one of O’Brien’s reps shot back. Much, much more after the jump… (more…)