To the loser, the spoils: Conan quits with $33m pay-off

Saga that has transfixed America comes to an end with O'Brien standing aside in favour of Jay Leno

It lasted less than a fortnight, but boy was it fun: the most hilarious, the most vicious, quite simply the biggest debacle in the recent history of United States television entertainment, with talcum powder flying by the bucketful. But, sadly for everyone except NBC, America's latest late night follies are over.

Early yesterday, the network announced it had reached a $45m settlement with Conan O'Brien, the prematurely departing host of The Tonight Show after less than eight months in the job. From 1 March, what used to be the most coveted chair on late-night television will again by occupied by Jay Leno, who held the job for 17 years before moving on to what were meant to be even better things.

Alas, it didn't quite work out like that. Leno's move from the traditional 11.35pm slot to a new prime-time show that aired at 10pm every weeknight was supposed to save NBC a fortune, replacing traditional and expensive drama by a talk show that cost far less.

But in television as in life, you get what you pay for. Ratings for Leno tumbled – a limp lead-in that dragged down audiences for the 11pm news shows that are the bread-and-butter of its affiliate stations. As for O'Brien, finally in the job he had hungered after for a decade, his viewership was awful too, barely half the five million drawn by Leno.

By the turn of the year, the affiliates staged the television equivalent of 1776 by threatening to dump Leno, one of NBC's biggest names, if the network didn't do it. Yesterday it did. Leno has been re-enthroned in his old slot after the news. As for O'Brien, whose last Tonight show is tonight, he is taking the money ($33m for him, $12m for his staff) and exiting stage left – still raging.

Redundancy, even cushioned by so lavish a severance package, is painful. But this one has produced on-screen backbiting and a public venting of spleen against their employers unmatched in the recent history of American television. As for the competitors of Leno, O'Brien and NBC, it's been a field day for schadenfreude.

Late last year, David Letterman, the host of CBS's The Late Show was in hot water, forced to admit he had used his position to seduce nubile subordinates. All that has been forgotten amid the joyful NBC-bashing. "I'm telling jokes and making fun of Jay Leno relentlessly, mercilessly, simply for one reason," he told viewers the other night. "I'm really enjoying it."

So too has O'Brien, as he's taken it out on NBC and Leno, having scornfully rejected a network proposal to move Tonight to 12.05am (effectively making it The Tomorrow Show) to accommodate Leno's return.

On Wednesday, he kicked off a strategy of "wasting as much of NBC's money as possible" in his final days by unveiling a million-dollar Bugatti Veyron luxury car dressed up as a mouse, as the newest Tonight Show regular. In the background the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" was playing.

O'Brien's relentless airing of dirty laundry has predictably lifted ratings – and he even had a joke about that. "Over the past week, ratings for the show are up by 50 per cent. When NBC executives heard this they told me" 'See, you really don't fit in around here.'"

Earlier, he put a note on the popular small-ad website Craigslist for a "barely used late-night talk show", and joked that young people should be inspired to believe they can "do anything you want in life – unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too."

Tonight, this financial and PR disaster for NBC finally ends. But the network's miseries are not over. By all accounts it is set to take a bath on its coverage of next month's Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the rights for which it paid a fortune. Some things never end.

The talk of the town: Conan's departure

David Letterman

"Now Conan's leaving, and NBC is negotiating with him... he can't take his signature comedy bits with him. But that's OK, Jay will take them."

Stephen Colbert

"Why won't the President admit we're in the middle of a war? Or does he think the NBC situation will fix itself?"

Jimmy Kimmel

"Listen Jay, Conan and I have children — all you have to take care of is cars. You've got $800m! For God's sake, leave our shows alone!"

Jay Leno

"My people are upset. Conan's people are upset. Hey, NBC said it wanted drama at 10.00 – now they've got it! Letterman's been hammering me every night. You know the best way to get Letterman to ignore you? Marry him."

Conan O'Brien

"My name is Conan O'Brien, and I may soon be available for children's parties."

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