O'Brien could make a return to latenight by September
What next, Conan O’Brien?With O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” exit expected to finally be announced on Monday – and his last show set for this Friday — the attention now turns to where he’ll be sending the moving vans. Fox is doing nothing to quash speculation that they’re the most obvious home for the displaced host. “We’ve pretty vocal about wanting to be in business with Conan,” Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Rice told Daily Variety. “It’s a bit premature to say where he will be, but first and foremost, it’s about where Conan wants to be.” The obstacles to clearing a late-night yakker on Fox have been well-documented. But the network’s entertainment chiefs appear to realize that this may rep their one shot at nabbing a well-established late night host. Up until now, Fox execs have tempered the question by reminding everyone that O’Brien was technically still under contract with NBC. But lawyers were winding down O’Brien’s exit package on Sunday – with a final announcement likely delayed by the Golden Globe Awards (which NBC telecasts). The major portions of the agreement had already been settled upon, however. It’s believed that as part of the settlement, O’Brien will be paid a sum worth between $30 million and $40 million. O’Brien will also now have the opportunity to launch a new late-night program by September, when a short non-compete window expires.(A new show would take at least that long to launch, insiders note.) Included in the exit package are severance and contract buy-out packages for the entire “Tonight Show” staff. That’s a hefty payout, as O’Brien’s executive producer, Jeff Ross, also has a large contract, while the show’s other talent and staffers – from Andy Richter and members of the Max Weinberg 7 to the show’s writers and all the way down to the janitorial team – would need to be paid as well. O’Brien’s manager, Gavin Polone, got on the phone Saturday to deny a New York Post/Page Six report that “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” staff was upset about not being compensated as the show shuts down. “That’s a complete lie,” Polone said. “I’ve been in the room every time, and point number one for (O’Brien) has been and will always be that they take care of his staff in a first-rate manner.” Polone noted that O’Brien paid his “Late Night” team out of his own pocket while the show was shut down during the Writers’ Strike. “He has not wavered on this,” Polone said. “If they do not appropriately handle the settlements and severance for the staff, then there’s no deal. We would litigate.” Up until the ink started getting dry on O’Brien’s exit package, the host’s reps still held out some hope that NBC might reverse course and decide to keep him at 11:35 p.m. But that was a long shot. Monday’s announcement (unless it’s still delayed by last-minute lawyerese, or by the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday) from NBC will likely focus on the return of Jay Leno to the “Tonight Show” chair – and point out Leno’s No. 1 status for the majority of that run. For now, O’Brien’s staff are prepping a farewell week of shows for “The Tonight Show,” leading to a Friday night blow-out. Among the rumored potential guests for that last week: Tom Hanks. If last week is any indication, O’Brien’s final week of shows could be huge ratings grabbers – likely helping the host’s chances for swiftly landing a new home, and also giving NBC execs reason to second guess what has transpired over the past 11 days. Stuart Levine contributed to this report.