NBC ends late night wars: Conan is out, Leno is back

Thu Jan 21, 2010 10:44pm EST
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By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Conan O'Brien will end his short-lived stint as host of "The Tonight Show" on Friday after signing a $45 million exit deal with NBC that ends two weeks of embarrassing on-air bickering and allows Jay Leno to return to the flagship late-night comedy program.

After more than a week of negotiations, General Electric Co's NBC said it had agreed to release O'Brien from his contract after seven months, and that he would be free to take a new job elsewhere after September 1.

"I'd like to apologize to the guests that were scheduled for next week: President Barack Obama, the Pope, the Queen of England, and our good friend, Elvis Presley," O'Brien joked during his show on Thursday.

The struggling network, already bottom of the four big U.S. TV networks and now the butt of jokes by its own and rival comics, said Leno will resume "The Tonight Show" on March 1.

Leno hosted the program for 17 years, making it the top-rated late-night talk show on U.S. television. He handed over to O'Brien in June 2009, only to see audiences slump.

"We're pleased that Jay is returning to host the franchise that he helmed brilliantly and successfully for many years," said NBC TV entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin.

Media analysts expected it would take time for Leno, who has been painted as the villain in the drama, to recover the "Tonight Show" audience.

"It is going to be a long path to recovery for NBC. It is not going to happen overnight," said Marc Berman, a senior TV writer with Mediaweek.   Continued...

<p>Host Conan O'Brien gestures onstage during the 58th annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in this August 27, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files</p>