The sticking point in Conan O'Brien's complex exit negotiations with NBC involves his TV staff, not Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, a person familiar with the talks said Tuesday.
Although discussions also focused on whether NBC would keep the rights to familiar O'Brien comedy bits including Triumph, O'Brien's focus was ensuring severance deals for his "Tonight" staff and crew, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were intended to be private.
O'Brien is "dug in on that," the person said.
NBC fired back in a statement, saying "it was Conan's decision to leave NBC that resulted in nearly 200 of his staffers being out of work."
"We have already agreed to pay millions of dollars to compensate every one of them. This latest posturing is nothing more than a PR ploy," the network said.
A spokesman for O'Brien declined to comment.
So far, negotiations have yielded a proposed deal that could pay O'Brien more than $30 million for leaving NBC and "The Tonight Show," allowing Jay Leno to return to late night from his soon-to-be canceled 10 p.m. EST show.
The proposal also would allow O'Brien, who would exit "Tonight" less than a year after taking over from Leno, to start work on a competing network as early as fall. But he would be barred from making NBC the butt of jokes.
Speculation that the Fox network might court O'Brien for a late-night show when he leaves NBC prompted a monologue joke Tuesday.
Listing things he might do with "all my new free time," O'Brien concluded with "Make a big move to Fox. Megan Fox."
O'Brien asked to be released from his contract, which has about two-and-a-half years left, after rejecting NBC's plan to push him and "Tonight" to 12:05 a.m. EST to make way for a half-hour show with Leno at 11:35 p.m.
The network, hit by poor ratings for its prime-time experiment, "The Jay Leno Show," and for O'Brien's "Tonight," was trying to keep both comedians on board.
O'Brien has seen his viewership jump in recent days. His Monday night Nielsen Co. rating, according to preliminary figures, was up 67 percent in total viewers over the previous fourth quarter average and up 80 percent among advertiser-favored young adults.
Ratings for Leno in the same window, however, remained flat.
The dispute has repeatedly spilled on-air, with jokes aplenty made about it by Leno, O'Brien, and hosts at other networks. CBS' David Letterman, who has taken shots at NBC and Leno, his one-time competitor for "Tonight," drew a rebuke for his quips from NBC sports chief Dick Ebersol.
That made for more Letterman fun Monday on his "Late Show."
Noting that Ebersol had termed him and O'Brien "chicken-hearted and gutless" for mocking someone they couldn't beat in the ratings, Letterman said that Ebersol "should be picking out sweaters for Bob Costas" to wear at NBC's upcoming Winter Olympics.
Letterman said "Big Jaw" — as he called Leno — had done nothing wrong but that he would continue making fun of him because "I'm really enjoying it."
There's been street theater, as well. A pro-O'Brien fan protest held Monday outside Universal Studios, one of several such big-city rallies, included a mock martial arts fight between a man wearing a white Leno wig and one in a red O'Brien wig. The fake O'Brien won.
The crowd was rewarded with a studio rooftop wave from O'Brien and a few words from his "Tonight" sidekick, Andy Richter, who thanked them and said it's been a tough time but also a "really fun" one.
"The lawyers won't let me say anything else," Richter added.
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