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Exclusive: Key source in Conan O'Brien negotiations says deal 'possible' by the weekend

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A key source in the ongoing negotiations between NBC and Conan O’Brien denied an Internet report that a deal was in place to return Jay Leno to The Tonight Show, but did speak optimistically about the talks and a possible end to the time shift disaster that has captivated the media and — ironically — reinvigorated Leno’s and O’Brien’s ratings over the last four days. “We would like to see it resolved by the weekend,” said the source, who did not want to be identified by name because of the heightened sensitivity surrounding the meetings. “It’s possible.”

It seems likely that Leno will end up returning to The Tonight Show, where he earned the title of the King of Late Night, while O’Brien’s representatives will negotiate a settlement for the 46-year-old comedian to leave the network. It also seems certain that the settlement will involve some sort of compromise that prevents O’Brien from immediately jumping to the competition. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon will continue to air at 12:30 a.m. “The whole point of a settlement is to negotiate a way out — a way that Conan can, over time, still perform and earn his living — and NBC is comfortable with the decision they are making,” the source said. “It’s all part of a negotiation.”

Though public perception is strong that NBC treated O’Brien unfairly by demanding that he retreat to the 12:05 a.m. time slot to accommodate The Jay Leno Show at 11:35 p.m., the source stressed that NBC “always has the right to cancel, always has the right to fire” someone based on performance (the once-venerable franchise with O’Brien is down 50 percent from a year ago, when Leno was pulling in an average of 5 million viewers). The source added that there are no time-slot restrictions in O’Brien’s contract, so the network was within its right to move The Tonight Show (even though it has never aired at 12:05 a.m. in the show’s 55-year history). The source also added that a heavily-reported clause in O’Brien’s contract that guaranteed him a hefty payout of $40 million or more if he wasn’t given The Tonight Show was not applicable here.

The source acknowledged that both sides have consulted with Universal Studios President/COO Ron Meyer for assistance in the talks.

NBC’s handling of O’Brien has been harshly denounced by fans and the nation’s TV critics, and has culminated in multiple online campaigns that call for NBC to keep the redhead. The source said that NBC wasn’t troubled by the attacks as much as they were by O’Brien’s jokes regarding Jay Leno (sample yuk from Jan. 13: “You can do anything you want in life, unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.”). Says the source, “It’s completely wrong, uncalled-for, and I don’t quite know where it’s coming from.”