Conan O'Brien Strikes $45 Million Deal to Leave NBC

| by Mark Berman

It's official -- Conan O'Brien is leaving NBC after more than 17 years at the network, including the last eight months as host of "The Tonight Show," clearing the way for Jay Leno to move back into his old seat.

The deal calls for NBC to pay out $45 million -- $33 million to O'Brien, and $12 million as severance pay to his staff of some 200 people. The staff payment was the final hurdle in the negotiations. O'Brien was said to have been "dug in" on the issue out of concern for the workers, while NBC said it had already agreed to pay "millions of dollars to compensate every one of them" and deemed it a public relations "ploy."

On Wednesday night's show, speaking about the severance issue, O'Brien joked, "At first they thought I was gullible. They said the staff would be taken to a big farm, where they'd be allowed to run free forever."

But eventually the network caved.

"Conan appreciated what NBC did to take care of his staff and crew, and decided to supplement the severance they were getting from the network out of his own pocket," said his manager, Gavin Polone.

O'Brien's last show will be Friday night. His final guest will be Will Ferrell -- his first guest on his inaugural show in June.

Under terms of the deal, O'Brien will be free to return to television on another network on September 1st. So far though, he has no offers. "While we have had expressions of interest, we have not had any substantive conversations with anybody," Polone said. He added that O'Brien "wants to get back on the air, doing the show he's doing now, as soon as possible."

His choices are limited. ABC, with Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel, has already said it is not interested. Fox is mentioned as a probable landing spot. But the network would have to convince its affiliates to give up lucrative sitcom reruns to clear space for an O'Brien show. That could be a tough sell.

Comedy Central is also being mentioned as a possibility. With Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the network has high-profile comedy stars. Of course, the audience on cable is much smaller than the broadcast TV O'Brien is used to. And so would the salary. But the $33 million from NBC would offset any pay cut O'Brien might have to take, so he should be all right.