NBC, O’Brien negotiations hit a snag

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HOLLYWOOD — Negotiations over Conan O’Brien’s departure from NBC stalled Tuesday over the “Tonight Show” host’s demands that NBC also compensate staff members who will lose their jobs when the show goes off the air.

The stalemate was one of several last-minute hitches
in the negotiations, which were expected to have been finalized earlier
in the week.

The “Tonight Show” employs about 190 people, including 60 to 70 who followed O’Brien to Los Angeles from New York early last year when he switched coasts to prepare for his new program. NBC
paid to relocate 40 to 50 of those staffers, said a person close to
show. O’Brien’s last night on the “Tonight Show” is expected to be
Friday. NBC has not said when the show’s former longtime host, Jay Leno, will return to his late-night slot. Leno’s last appearance on his short-lived prime-time show is Feb. 11.

The O’Brien-Leno fiasco is becoming increasingly costly for the General Electric Co.-owned network, which not only spent more than $25 million
building a new studio for O’Brien on the Universal Studios, lot but now
must also shell out millions more developing new dramas for 10 p.m., the time period vacated by Leno’s return to late night. The moves come shortly after GE acknowledged that NBC will lose about $200 million on its upcoming Winter Olympics coverage.

NBC is facing $40 million to $50 million in “Tonight Show” severance payments, including about $30 million to O’Brien, according to people close to the situation.

Earlier this month, NBC decided to shift Leno back to 11:35 p.m.
after affiliate TV stations threatened to pre-empt his prime-time show
because they were losing viewers for their late local newscasts.

When NBC tried to push O’Brien’s show to 12:05 a.m. to make room for a half-hour Leno show, O’Brien refused.

“We are fighting hard to get as much as possible to these people who are going to be out of work,” Gavin Polone, O’Brien’s manager, said Tuesday.

NBC officials bristled at the suggestion that they were being insenstive to staff members.

“It was Conan’s decision to leave NBC
that resulted in nearly 200 of his staffers being out of work. We have
already agreed to pay millions of dollars to compensate every one of
them. This latest posturing is nothing more than a PR ploy,” NBC said in a statement.

Not so, said Polone. “It is not a ploy or a
strategy. Conan’s first priority is and always has been to take care of
the employees of the show. He paid them out of his own pocket during
the strike when NBC laid them off.”

O’Brien has been unyielding in his on-air swipes at the NBC brass. In his monologue Monday, O’Brien sang about them: “Morons. Incompetent morons.”

On Tuesday, he said, “It’s been a busy day for me
today. I spent the afternoon at Universal Studios’ amusement park,
enjoying their brand-new ride, the ‘Tunnel of Litigation.'”

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