Coco’s last night to ruffle the Peacock’s feathers

Tonight marks the end of an era (a months-long era, but historical nonetheless)—Conan O’Brien will host his final episode of The Tonight Show, and the NBC late night/primetime experiment that went horribly wrong officially comes to a close. Now everything can go back to the way it was with 10 PM primetime programming returning to the Peacock network, and Jay Leno returning to host The Tonight Show, and Conan O’Brien going to…oh, wait…um…about that…

The most unfortunate part of all this is Conan’s departure. The terms of his buy-out were finalized early Thursday morning, and according to Variety includes severance packages for all staffers as well as:

O’Brien will have the opportunity to launch such a new late-night program starting Sept. 1, when a short non-compete window expires. (A new show would take at least that long to launch, insiders note.)

Despite previous speculation that NBC would pay less if O’Brien quickly landed another job, there is no “offset” clause in the deal. Indeed, even if O’Brien eventually signs with Fox or another net and receives a new salary, he’ll still get that $32 million payout — as long as he abides by the agreement.

In exchange for the $32 million payout, NBC execs got the concessions from O’Brien that they wanted “for a cooling-off period.”

Besides that noncompete window, stipulations include a disparagement clause that will limit what O’Brien can say in the press or on TV. As a result, O’Brien will likely lie low in the coming weeks and months and not give an interview on the circumstances, insiders said.

The disparagement clause also expires Sept. 1. On recent editions of “The Tonight Show,” O’Brien has made light of what he can or can’t say about NBC going forward. Insiders said he’s still allowed to poke fun at NBC on “Tonight” — but once that show goes dark, his lips are zipped.

O’Brien also won’t be able to bring the intellectual property that he created at NBC over the years, including even Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. But David Letterman faced the same thing — and found ways around it — when he left for CBS in 1993.

…so, what’s next for O’Brien? Fox seems to be the front runner, but a New York Times technology writer brought up Conan having a show on the Internet. Not a bad idea, although not as lucrative as TV of course. A consideration I came up with: if Fox doesn’t come through, Conan should entertain going the Bill Maher/HBO route. Get a daily or weekly show on one of the premium channels…the money may still not be as great, but he certainly would have more creative freedom. I do like the Internet idea, though, especially after reading David Carr’s column in The New York Times questioning the relevance of late-night talk shows given today’s immediate access to news/pop culture and the abundance of clip highlights available via the Internet post broadcast.

Anyway, I predict that tonight’s ratings will be impressive, maybe even record-breaking (guests include Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks and Neil Young)…and I also predict Conan and his remarkable hair will be back on our TV’s and/or computers come September 1.

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