TODAY   |  January 20, 2010

Conan O’Brien settles to leave NBC

Jan. 21: After days of negotiations with both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, the network announced an agreement, allowing Leno to return as host of the "Tonight Show," while paying O'Brien to leave. NBC’s Lee Cowan reports.

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>> matt, thank you.

>>> after days of negotiation and weeks of speculation, it is now official, nbc is confirming this morning that the network and conan o'brien have reached a deal. nbc 's lee cowan is in los angeles with the details. lee, good morning.

>> reporter: good morning, meredith . yeah, it has been a long couple of weeks, but as you say, nbc is now ready to say that they do have a deal with conan o'brien that allows him to leave the network. in fact, his last " tonight show " will be tomorrow night. in terms of his exit deal, we're told, are worth roughly around $45 million. about a quarter of that is severance for his staff, but although conan is allowed to leave nbc , and even specific characters or anything he specifically created for nbc , those don't go with him.

>> thank you very much, everybody!

>> reporter: only a professional comedian could joke about walking away from the dream job he wanted most of his adult life, but reality has just given his punch lines some real punch.

>> hi, i'm conan o'brien. sorry if i'm late. i had a job interview at lady footlocker .

>> reporter: nbc officially handed conan o'brien's " tonight show " back to its former owner, jay leno , bringing a curtain down on an embarrassing chapter at nbc that took teams of lawyers weeks to iron out.

>> i spent the afternoon at universal studios amusement park , enjoying their brand new ride, the tunnel of litigation.

>> reporter: under the terms of the deal, conan o'brien leaves nbc with millions the network would have otherwise paid him and is allowed to eventually seek a television show on a competing network. as for jay leno , he's out of his failed primetime gig but right back where he was for 17 years, saying the network valued him too much to lose, but that reasoning seemed to puzzle even him.

>> how valuable can i be? you fired me twice. how valuable can i be?

>> reporter: nbc universal chief executive jeff zucker told charlie rose this week that he regrets conan 's departure.

>> i feel terribly that conan isn't going to be at nbc where he was given the chance 17 years ago and was a homegrown star, and that, ultimately, it will end this way. i don't feel good about that, obviously.

>> reporter: but in the end, he said it was a business decision.

>> this wasn't exactly what the viewers wanted, and so, i don't know that we would have done this exactly, but i do think that taking a risk and trying something new is something that we should always be willing to do.

>> reporter: ironically, the highly publicized dust-up has given conan some of the highest ratings he's had since he started as "the tonight show " host. fans have even organized save cocoa rallies and vow to follow him wherever he ends up.

>> nearly 16 million people watched the golden globes on nbc and as a result, nbc will begin airing repeats of the golden globes five nights a week at 10:00 .

>> reporter: for now, nbc has temporarily solved its late-night woe, but have an even larger one looming, what to do with the primetime slot jay leno leaves behind. not the kind of drama nbc brass is hoping for. now, meredith , jay leno is expected to return to his old-new job on "the tonight show " as of march 1st . that's the first monday after the olympics. as for conan o'brien, we said that he was free to seek other television opportunities. well, under the terms of this deal, he's allowed to be on television somewhere as of september 1st . meredith ?

>> all right, lee cowan, thank you very much. guaranteed the ratings on friday are going to be huge.

>> this has really been something that's captured a lot of people's attention. but as we said before, you know, these are friends of ours.

>> absolutely.

>> their staff members are friends of ours, so we feel bad about anybody leaving and wish them all the best and i wish it would have worked out differently.

>> me, too. we haven't had "where in the world is matt lauer " recently. we could have "where in the world is matt lauer " at 10:00 . just an idea, jeff, if