LATE NIGHT IN CRISIS: Conan’s Camp Responds to Ebersol, and Where Everything Stands

Conan_obrien5(2) Conan O’Brien could be a free agent by the weekend — and so will conclude just one chapter in this ever-unfolding drama. Here’s where things appear to stand at the moment:

:: The deal is pretty much in place for Jay Leno to once again host “The Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m., starting March 1 — the day after the Winter Olympics ends. Presumably Leno would host from his recently erected “The Jay Leno Show” set — with those visual 10 p.m. references (such as the picture of a car spedometer with needle on “10”) — scrubbed.

:: As O’Brien’s reps finalize an exit deal for the host, it’s believed O’Brien will receive a low-eight figure payout from NBC (although not the $50 million or so salary that he would be owed). And a non-compete window could be lifted by fall, allowing O’Brien to launch a new late-night program before the end of the year. Also still in the works: How to compensate staffers — half of which followed O’Brien from New York to Los Angeles.

That issue of O’Brien’s displaced staffers “is something that’s keeping him awake at night,” one source said.

:: Fox remains the most viable candidate for O’Brien, and interest in the host appears to be growing at the network. At first dismissed as an unlikely scenario, Fox execs are now mulling the possibility of at the very least being able to clear a “Conan O’Brien” show on its owned stations, which rep 40% of the country — and think straight off the bat they could clear the show in as much as 60% of the country at 11 p.m.

:: Any hope by O’Brien fans that he might still get to keep the “Tonight Show” appeared to go out the window after NBC’s Dick Ebersol made it clear to the New York Times that the network had made its choice already. What’s more, Ebersol — a close ally of NBC U honcho Jeff Zucker — blasted O’Brien for his ratings performance and for the host’s jabs at Leno.

“What this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan,” Ebersol told the newspaper. Ebsersol said he had advised O’Brien on making his “Tonight Show” more appealing to middle America viewers, but said O’Brien was “stubborn about not being willing to broaden the appeal of his show.”

Sources close to O’Brien called his statements “preposterous,” and noted that Ebersol’s track record isn’t pristine either (the XFL, for example).

“It was just in this weeks press that his division is losing $200 million on the Olympics,” the source countered. “And he brought down ‘Saturday Night Live’ (during his tenure there). I don’t think he’s in the position to criticize Conan.”

:: Insiders from O’Brien’s camp also dismissed reports that the host’s contract failed to stipulate that his “Tonight Show” air at 11:35.

Those sources claim that O’Brien’s old “Late Night” contract made it clear that the show aired after “The Tonight Show,” which aired at 11:35. His eventual “Tonight Show” pact was an addendum to that existing “Late Night” deal. That’s why O’Brien’s exit has been expedited so quickly, they said — that there isn’t the kind of semantics debate over the “Tonight Show” timeslot that everyone predicted there would be.

NBC sources, however, dispute that, and stand by the previous assumption that O’Brien’s deal was just for “The Tonight Show” — and not 11:35.

:: With a settlement expected this weekend, O’Brien will likely host one final week of “The Tonight Show,” with his farewell taking place on Friday, Jan. 22. That’s because O’Brien and “Tonight” had already scheduled a hiatus for the week of Jan. 25. NBC would likely then run repeats up until the Winter Olympics, which start on Feb 12.

As for those earlier rumors that NBC might employ guest hosts to fill the gap between O’Brien’s exit and the Olympics, NBC insiders once again dismissed the idea. One noted that there would be no staff to produce those shows anyway — as most of O’Brien’s transplanted New York team, a loyal group, wouldn’t be expected to stick around.

Prepping for his quick departure, O’Brien has already been running (slightly tongue in cheek) a series of nostalgic “Tonight Show” retrospectives — clips from his seven months on the air.

But it appears as if those “Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” mugs, magnets and t-shirts are going to soon become very valuable. E-Bay, brace yourself.

:: Rivals continue to also take aim at Leno and NBC on camera. Jimmy Kimmel was savage in his appearance on “The Jay Leno Show” Thursday night, taking the opportunity to throw jabs to Leno’s face — on Leno’s show.

“Listen Jay, Conan and I have children,” he told the host. “All you have to take care of is cars. We have lives to lead here, you’ve got $800 million. For God’s sake, leave our shows alone.”

David Letterman, meanwhile, has been positively giddy over the situation, enjoy a sense of schadenfraude over the whole affair (given what he went through in 1992).

Another rival, however, took both Leno and O’Brien to task for the creative struggles and ratings drops they encountered in recent months.

“It’s like both of these guys forgot how to make TV,” one source close to a rival show said. He added, however, that he also would have advised O’Brien to walk once NBC downgraded his show to midnight.

“Why be in a place where they don’t want you?”

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