After a surreal week of high emotion and comic abuse of NBC on "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien," the 46-year-old host is gone for good from the network's airwaves after only seven months in Johnny Carson's old chair.
But the story of this misguided adventure in prime-time and late-night programming by NBC's top brass is far from over. The narrative of O'Brien being pushed out of the job he prepared himself for over five years to make room for Jay Leno, who failed miserably in prime time, demands some discussion about what happens next to the redhead.
The interest is greatest, of course, among O'Brien fans, who will miss having him there Monday night after the late local news - and hope he will be back somewhere on TV after the no-compete portion of his severance agreement with NBC ends in September. But even casual observers of this incredible corporate crackup are surely curious about how the only character who remotely resembles a protagonist in this sorry tale might fare.
The happiest pro-O'Brien story line has him showing up on Fox in September and trouncing NBC, hopefully, in some form of head-to-head competition against Leno. The Conan-moving-to-Fox scenario has been treated like a done deal in some online sites - to the point that several media outlets fell last week for hoax stories that the network had registered a Fox-Conan domain name. Not true.
"I think Peter Rice [Fox Entertainment chairman] wants Conan on the broadcast network - and, in fact, in one of our interviews, Rice said that Fox would like to be in business with him," says Stuart Levine, assistant managing editor at the trade publication Variety. Levine has been covering the late-night saga in Los Angeles.
"The problem is that Fox would have to get clearance for that from the affiliates. So emotionally, it sounds great right now for people to say Conan's going to be on Fox in September. But financially, I don't know how it would work. I'm not sure anyone has talked to the affiliates about clearances yet."
Affiliates are those 200 or so stations across the country that are not owned by the network but, as a confederation, give it the power to sell ads nationally. Affiliates were the part of the network food chain that ultimately forced NBC to cancel "The Jay Leno Show" a few weeks ago by threatening to pre-empt Leno's low-rated 10 p.m. show with their own late-night newscasts moved up an hour.
"Clearances" refer to the affiliates' clearing a time period of any local programming so that a network program can have it.
Getting clearance at WBFF-TV (Channel 45), the Fox affiliate in Baltimore, could be "complicated," according to general manger Bill Fanshawe, who also oversees Fox affiliates in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
"Conan is clearly a talented host and would be a huge asset to any company, but there are lots of factors involved - factors that would have to be worked out between the network and the CEOs of the companies that own the stations," Fanshawe says.
"If there was an opportunity and the network got Conan, for us, one of the biggest factors would involve us having a brand [local news] built at 10 and 11 - and established in those time periods. But if there was some flexibility ... and they would consider having Conan come on after 11:30, yes, there could be an opportunity at my particular Fox station in Baltimore."
Translation: Baltimore's Fox45 airs its late local news from 10 to 11, and then offers an update at 11. The station and its owner, Sinclair, get to keep all the revenue from advertising during those time periods.
So if Fox wants to air O'Brien in Baltimore any time between 10 and 11:30, it probably would have to compensate the station for the lost revenue - and, given the comedian's weak ratings performance at 11:30 on NBC, it is far from certain that O'Brien would generate the kind of earnings that would be enough to provide for both network and affiliate profits.
Making an early start even more problematic and potentially expensive in Baltimore is the fact that Fox45 has established its late news as a winner in that profitable niche at 10 p.m., right after such Fox entertainment fare as " American Idol."
But if Fox wants to air a new O'Brien show after 11:30, that's open to negotiations.
But the Fox45 situation, with 90 minutes of late news starting at 10 p.m., is only one model. Other affiliates in other markets are locked into long-term syndication agreements for sitcoms such as "Friends" and "Seinfeld" in those hours - including after 11:30.
Would Fox be willing to compensate or buy such stations out of those contracts with syndicators to "clear" time in their cities for O'Brien? Complications within complications - but not impossible.
Nor is broadcast TV the only possibility for O'Brien. There have been reports of O'Brien's doing a nightly cable production, similar to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central.
Levine quotes John Langraf, president of the FX cable channel, as saying he'd "love to have a daily show" with Conan. But being owned by Fox, FX would have to see what the parent company wants for its network.
And how would O'Brien feel about moving from network TV to cable with a much smaller staff and far fewer resources?
"I don't know that Conan would be willing to go from NBC to basic cable," Levine says.
Some analysts have even suggested that online TV would be a good fit for O'Brien's niche-ier brand of humor. But if O'Brien thinks basic cable might be a comedown after hosting a storied network franchise, Internet TV is probably not something he is ready to seriously consider.
Where O'Brien ultimately lands in coming months matters - if for no other reason than that he has become, in the minds of some, a kind of folk hero. That might seem a laughable description of someone who leaves NBC with $35 million in severance after failing to attract a large enough audience for his employer to make a profit.
But NBC's top executives have displayed such stupidity and audience indifference in first moving Leno to prime time, and then back to 11:35 p.m. at O'Brien's expense, viewers need to root for someone against the network - and, by extension, the corporate forces that control their lives.