Late Night War Reaches Hardball Phase

According to Nikki Finke, bald TV prick Jeff Zucker is so furious at Conan O'Brien's insolence that he's threatening to "ice" him and enforce the noncompete provisions of his contract, which would keep him off the air until 2013.

UPDATE: TMZ is now reporting that Jay Leno has inked a deal with NBC to return to the full 11:35 to 12:35 a.m. hour. Whether or not it will be called The Tonight Show will probably have to wait until O'Brien and NBC resolve their issues.

It's almost exactly like their last run-in at Harvard: Back then, O'Brien got cheeky with Zucker and played a prank. Zucker called the fucking cops. This time, O'Brien got cheeky by quite reasonably objecting to NBC's insulting, arguably contract-abrogating plan to push him back by a half-hour, and Zucker—who, if Finke's report is accurate, seems to be putting personal pique ahead of NBC Universal's corporate interests to just be done with this whole mess—is threatening to be as dickish as the law will allow:

To counter O'Brien's principled public statement which the late night host issued this week, Zucker "is threatening to ice Conan", according to his reps. "Zucker said, 'I'll keep you off the air for 3 1/2 years.' Which doesn't have a chance in hell of happening. What I really think Zucker wants is to hold him off the market for at least six months to a year until the dust settles and Leno is secure and Conan is squelched." One of the reps even compared Zucker to "Darth Vader" because the NBCU chief "has been so evil" about this.

O'Brien's camp, Finke says, is wrapping itself in the banner of the pimply, skinny, awkward (red-headed!), schoolkid standing up to the fat rich bully, which is appropriate enough under the circumstances. But a troubling whiff of naivete seems to have crept into O'Brien's thinking, to judge by what one of his team reps told Finke:

"Someone's got to show NBCU that big greedy corporate dickheads can't win," one of Conan's manager-agent-lawyer "Team Conan" representatives told me.

WARNING! THIS IS DEMONSTRABLY FALSE. Big greedy corportate dickheads always win. This won't end well.

So what happens next? Hopefully a massive, public, drawn-out lawsuit with lots of depositions and discovery, which is what will certainly happen if neither side backs away from their current positions. If NBC moves the Tonight Show start-time as promised and O'Brien doesn't show up for work as promised, NBC will consider him in violation of his contract and stop paying him, and O'Brien would presumably sue for the $60 million penalty his contract says he is owed if he's booted from the show (back in 2004, when the deal was inked, the New York Times described that penalty as "so substantial that the network surely had no intention of ever having to pay it, according to people involved in the deal." Ha!). NBC would countersue for an injunction preventing O'Brien from appearing on anyone else's air for the duration of the contract, and Nikke Finke would write "TOLDJA!"

The more mundane and likely outcome is that NBC will pay O'Brien some sum of money less than $60 million, and O'Brien will promise to stay off the air for some period of time less than three-and-a-half-years. And then O'Brien will get an 11 p.m. show on Fox, and it will fail. Everyone knows that the Tonight Show's ratings have suffered under O'Brien, but a new analysis cited by the Associated Press indicates that it wasn't just a case of the new kid getting hazed by fickle audiences that aren't used to his "hip" humor: While his overall drop in November was a steep 25% among 25-to-54-year-olds, his biggest losses were in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, urban centers that are supposed to be his home turf.

UPDATE: I completely misread the AP story cited immediately above. The ratings declines were for the local newscasts following Leno's show, not for O'Brien's. Which means they help explain O'Brien's consequent ratings drop, since his lead-in suffered. Apologies for the error.