NBC's Zucker Pays Conan O'Brien Hush Money -- Out of GE's Pocket

In the end, it cost $40 million for General Electric's (GE) NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker to make his problems -- i.e., Conan O'Brien -- go away. Fortunately for Zucker, who has made a career out of passing the buck and dodging blame, that money will come from the coffers of a company he won't be working for much longer -- so who cares?Negotiators representing NBC and the soon-to-be-former host of its Tonight Show have reportedly agreed to a settlement under which O'Brien will walk away with $40 million, freeing up NBC to return Jay Leno to his familiar 11:35 p.m. perch. Of that $40 million, $8 million or so is said to be earmarked for his staff, and the remaining $32 million will decrease by whatever amount O'Brien earns from other networks during the remaining three-plus years of his contract period.

The $40 Million Man

If the number $40 million sounds familiar, that may be because it's the same amount as the penalty NBC was contractually obligated to give O'Brien if it took The Tonight Show away from him before his contract was up. In other words, NBC's lawyers didn't secure much in the way of concessions. But they did get one thing: a non-disparagement clause that will prevent O'Brien from verbally hammering the network and its executives, as he has been every night since this contretemps began.

Spending extra to gag O'Brien is a classic example of Zucker's image-over-substance management style. As he awaits the consummation of NBC Universal's takeover by Comcast (CMCSA), Zucker is surely hoping to make a good impression on his future bosses -- something a lengthy stint as a late-night punching bag will make difficult. In fact, Zucker is doing everything he can to wash his hands of the situation he was once so eager to take credit for. Here he is heaping the blame on his lieutenant, Jeff Gaspin, in The Wall Street Journal:
Jeff Gaspin has responsibility for NBC entertainment, and he has stepped up and taken that responsibility. He wanted to make the change at 10 o'clock. He wanted to keep all three folks in late night. I was supportive of that.
"Supportive" -- yep, that's Jeff Zucker. Supportive as a scaffold.

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