EXCLUSIVE! 2ND UPDATE: NBC Universal, faced with Conan O'Brien's defiance, is taking what insiders tell me is "a super tough threatening position" over his refusal to host The Tonight Show at 12:05 AM instead of 11:35 PM. "Someone's got to show NBCU that big greedy corporate dickheads can't win," one of Conan's manager-agent-lawyer-public relations "Team Conan" representatives told me. And while Jeff Zucker has not stepped up and taken responsibility for this mess he set in in motion in the first place — by replacing Leno with Conan O'Brien as host of The Tonight Show even though Jay was No. 1 in his time slot at the time — he's been busy behind the scenes. I've already reported how Zucker has been privately blaming Conan for the current debacle, saying "He let me down" because The Tonight Show for the last 7 months since O'Brien took over has been losing out to David Letterman in both eyeballs and advertiser-coveted demographics. (Bullshit, Zucker, you can't keep blaming others for your Zuck-ups.) Bad enough that Zucker made Conan hear about the planned move in the first place from the media.
But now the NBCU chief has been talking tough during the negotiations with Team Conan. To counter O'Brien's principled public statement which the late night host issued this week, Zucker "is threatening to ice Conan", according to his reps. "Zucker said, 'I'll keep you off the air for 3 1/2 years.' Which doesn't have a chance in hell of happening. What I really think Zucker wants is to hold him off the market for at least six months to a year until the dust settles and Leno is secure and Conan is squelched." One rep even compared Zucker to "Darth Vader" because the NBCU chief "has been so evil" about this.
According to NBC's stated plans, The Jay Leno Show would leaves its unsuccessful primetime 10 PM time slot on February 12th, and then move to 11:35 PM after NBC finishes broadcasting the Vancouver Winter Olympics on February 28th. That's when The Jay Leno Show arrives in late night, and Conan's show pushes back by 1/2 an hour. To NBC's way of thinking, it can kill two birds with one stone: it won't have to pay Jay that hefty $80 million penalty for takingThe Jay Leno Show off the air because the program has "merely" moved timeslots. And it won't have to pay Conan that fat $60 million penalty for removing him from The Tonight Show because that program, too, has "merely" moved timeslots. But, as David Letterman so succinctly put it this week, "At 12:05 AM, that's not The Tonight Show, that's The Tomorrow Show! As I've written previously, the Pottery Barn rule is applicable here: "You break it, you buy it." It could and it should cost NBC.
But I've learned O'Brien's reps now believe that Zucker wants to jettison Conan altogether and put Jay back at The Tonight Show at its usual starting time. So, to prevent O'Brien competing at NBC or elsewhere with Leno's attempt to lure back his late night audience, NBCU's Zucker has come up with this plot to "ice" Conan for the length of his NBC Tonight Show contract. It's dastardly, it's cowardly, and it could be damn effective. But there's no way Team Conan says they're going to let that happen. Bad enough NBCU horribly humiliated Conan and, as he so rightly pointed out in his statement, will damage The Tonight Show by moving it down a half-hour. With the 12:05 AM start, its ratings will never recover. After NBC made that decision, the phones at his WME agency rang off the hook with calls from every network, cable, and pay channel looking to hire O'Brien. And there's every reason for him to flee. But, if Conan exits voluntarily or involuntarily, it will take at least a year before a new show is readied and on the air. He risks losing his fan base during that time. And he'll be forever tagged by the failure. So now it's open warfare between NBC and O'Brien's reps.
Zucker's hardline stance became evident during that 1:45 PM Tuesday meeting at NBC Universal this week shortly after Conan issued his statement of defiance. On one side of the room were NBCU bigwigs Jeff Gaspin and Marc Graboff. On the other were O'Brien's reps: manager Gavin Palone, WME agent and board member Rick Rosen, and the newest member of Team O'Brien, Hollywood litigator Patty Glaser, who was hired last Sunday and is WME's legal shark of choice. Not attending were Zucker (hiding back in NYC), or WME boss Ari Emanuel (leading the WME retreat in Rancho Mirage). One of Hollywood's toughest negotiators and the model for Entourage agent Ari Gold played by Jeremy Piven, Ari. Even so, Gavin can be as mean as a rabid dog, Rick's agency reps 60% of the TV talent, and Glaser is a pitbull. For them, this kind of mano-a-mano negotiation is bloodsport. But even they were shocked by Zucker's scheming.
"Patty came in and said, 'You can't do this.' They claim they can legally, but everyone knows it's ambiguous. The contract is not clearly expressed and they are misinterpreting it," one of my sources related. "So everything now is at a standstill. There's been a proposal, and a counter-proposal. This will end up in front of a judge if someone [at NBCU] doesn't wise up."
I'd learned both NBCU chief Jeff Zucker as well as Gaspin were told about Conan's statement publicly promising to protect the integrity of The Tonight Show he'd inherited. It made Zucker furious. O'Brien's reps didn't want O'Brien to speak out. "They were not thrilled. They told him it would undercut his negotiating leverage," one source revealed to me. "But Conan wouldn't listen to them. He wanted to make it." And yet, because of the controversy, O'Brien's Tonight Showratings have risen. While Leno hasn't received a similar bump, Conan's number went up to 1.9 in the overnights. Certainly, that has to give NBC pause, right? Apparently not. Sources tell me there's only "the slightest of chances" that Zucker will relent and keep O'Brien and The Tonight Show intact at 11:35 PM. As for Conan, if he's released, he wants to ensure his executive producer Jeff Ross and other staff who moved out from New York to Los Angeles "are taken care of". As for himself, "he's not thinking about strategy. He's saying, "I just want enough money to feed my family.'"