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What’s Next for Conan as the Curtain Falls?

Conan O'Brien departs NBC tonight after a 17-year career and a mere seven months in his dream job, hosting its Tonight Show. But even before Jay Leno reclaims Tonight's chair on March 1, the courtship ritual has begun for O'Brien's next gig.

Under terms of a settlement reached early Thursday, NBC will pay the host $33 million - the balance of his three-year contract. An additional $12 million goes to laid-off producers and staff. (Conan's Tonight Show will be in reruns until the Olympics.)

Until Sept. 1, he can't work elsewhere; for a shorter period of time, he can't disparage NBC, appear on other talk shows or do interviews. His signature comedy bits will die with his career at NBC, which owns them.

On Thursday's show, O'Brien joked that among the terms of his exit, "I am prohibited from coming within 500 yards of 11:30" and he must "watch at least one NBC show every weeknight in order to double ratings."

O'Brien's representatives say they've already heard from several networks expressing interest in him. Fox is most interested in a nightly talk show, though it must first arm-twist stations to give up their profitable late-night reruns.

"He actually has a TV tonality more appropriate for Fox than he did for NBC," says John Rash of ad firm Campbell Mithun.

NBC Universal TV chief Jeff Gaspin says Leno's prime-time failure, and losses at the suddenly lower-rated Tonight Show estimated at $20 million, left the network unable to wait for O'Brien's audience to grow.

"We thought it was possible he'd understand the difficult situation we were in" by agreeing to move his show a half-hour later, to 12:05 ET/PT, Gaspin says. But O'Brien refused, expressing "enormous personal disappointment" and vowing he wouldn't "participate in what I honestly believe is (Tonight's) destruction."

That triggered 10 days of legal wrangling, scathing jokes and sharply higher ratings for Tonight. Supportive rivals David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel traded barbs with Leno, whom Gaspin gave a semi-ringing endorsement. "We hope and expect he will be part of Tonight as long as he wants to be (and) as long as it's working for us," he says. "People form habits, and we shook things up. But over time, Jay will be the late-night leader again."

He also expects improvement at 10 with shows that replace Leno March 1, and put on ice any new low-cost ploys. "We now have the ability to start rebuilding NBC in a more traditional way," he says. "At a later date, after we have more strength, we can try new models again."

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