Conan's Payback: How Much Did O'Brien's Bugatti Stunt Cost NBC?

Was scorned host's $1.5 million Bugatti, Rolling Stones revenge bit real?

ByALICE GOMSTYN <br/> ABC NEWS Business Unit
January 21, 2010, 8:04 AM

Jan. 21, 2010 &#151; -- How do you get back at a boss who wronged you? How about spending more than a $1 million of your boss's cash before you head out the door?

That was outgoing "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien's apparent strategy Wednesday night when he unveiled his show's newest character, the "Bugatti Veyron Mouse," a $2 million Bugatti sports car adorned with fake mouse ears and whiskers. The car's debut on the show was accompanied by the sound of a master recording of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."

O'Brien, who will host his last episode of "The Tonight Show" on Friday, cheerfully claimed that featuring the car and the classic song on the show would cost NBC a total of $1.5 million.

O'Brien will be replaced with former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, whose 10 p.m. show is being canceled after lagging ratings and complaints from NBC affiliates who said Leno's show provided a weak lead-in to their late newscasts.

"The good news is until NBC yanks us off the air, we can pretty much do whatever we want and, this is the best part, we can do whatever we want and they have to pay for it," O'Brien explained before introducing the car. "So for the rest of the week we're going to introduce new comedy bits that aren't so much funny as they are crazy expensive."

When it comes to the bit's price tag, however, the comedian may have been off by $1 million or so. New York-based entertainment lawyer Steve Gordon says that existing agreements between NBC and music licensing companies would allow the "Tonight Show" to play "Satisfaction" at no additional cost for a live or time-delayed performance.

If the show were to be rerun, he said, NBC might have to pay $25,000 to $50,000 for the song's use to its owner, Abkco, which owns much of the Stones' early work. If a clip of the song were used on the Internet, he said, a similar or greater fee could apply, assuming Abkco allowed permission for its use.

As for the Bugatti -- O'Brien called it the most expensive car in the world, and he's likely right. Car research Web site lists the price for the 2009 Bugatti Veyron model at $1.99 million.

But the show didn't actually shell out any money to put an earlier model of the Bugatti Veyron on air. The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles told that it lent the show its 2006 Bugatti Veyron for free.

The show "contacted us and we decided it might be a good thing to help out," said museum information and marketing manager Chris Brown.

The car -- which, like the 2009 model, is valued at roughly $2 million -- had been in museum storage most recently but it is now back on display.

"Being we are as close as we are to Hollywood, we do like to have vehicles on the silver screen and small screen on display," Brown said. "To have a car like this that's recently been on TV, it's a good thing."

Even if "The Tonight Show" had to pay for the car, the price for its temporary use could be in the five-figure range. Luxury car rental service Beverly Hills Rent-a-Car, for instance, charges $25,000 per day for the rental of a Bugatti Veyron.

After weeks of wrangling between "Tonight Show" host O'Brien and NBC, the network today announced that it and O'Brien are officially parting ways.

"Under terms of an agreement that was signed earlier today, NBC and O'Brien will settle their contractual obligations and the network will release O'Brien from his contract, freeing him to pursue other opportunities after September 1, 2010," NBC said.

The network said that Leno, who previously hosted the "Tonight Show" from May 1992 to May 2009, would return to the program on March 1.

It's Official: Leno Replacing Conan

"We're pleased that Jay is returning to host the franchise that he helmed brilliantly and successfully for many years," Jeff Gaspin, the chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, said in a written statement today. "He is an enormous talent, a consummate professional and one of the hardest-working performers on television."

O'Brien reportedly won't be allowed to take his best-known characters and skits with him when he leaves NBC, but The Wall Street Journal reports that O'Brien will receive a severance package of about $32 million while his staff will receive some $12 million. Staff severance was a sticking point in O'Brien's protracted negotiations with the network, O'Brien's camp told

O'Brien is happy with the package but is also supplementing staff severance out of his own pocket with a seven-figure sum, O'Brien manager Gavin Polone said today.

Polone said O'Brien wants to return to the air as soon as possible.

"He's doing so well right now it'd be horrible to lose that momentum," he said. "The numbers are so high and its clearly not just about the controversy."

O'Brien, he said, would want to establish a show similar to the "Tonight Show."

The Fox network has been O'Brien's most vocal would-be suitor, but Polone said no formal talks have begun with Fox yet. He added that there are "other possibilities" beyond Fox but also said that the News Corp.-owned company is "certainly a terrific network."

O'Brien could also explore options with the cable networks or embrace digital media wholly and take his shtick online, the preferred medium for many of his fans: "I'm With COCO," the Facebook group dedicated to the comedian, has more than 500,000 members.

If and when O'Brien does start another show, he'll could have to keep a lid on the NBC-bashing that has helped drive his current show's ratings for the last two weeks: O'Brien's exit package is said to include a "nondisaparagement" clause that would prevent O'Brien and NBC from saying negative things about one another for a set period of time.

One thing that's not in O'Brien's agreement, however, is a rumored "mitigation" clause that would have allowed NBC to avoid paying at least some of O'Brien's severance if he gets another hosting job, according to entertainment gossip Web site

Suspense is building over how O'Brien will spend what is expected to be his last night at NBC. He all but admitted earlier in the week that Friday would be his final show, joking during his monologue Tuesday night that he was "just three days away from the biggest drinking binge in history."

The show announced that Friday's guests would be Oscar-winner Tom Hanks and comic-actor Will Ferrell, who was O'Brien's first guest when he made his "Tonight Show" debut in June.

Hanks, who was originally slated to appear on the show Tuesday night, posted a message on his Twitter page about the upcoming appearance: "Flag on me with CoCo tonight! Going on Friday's Big Show. What WILL happen? Tune in. Hanx."

Nostalgic fans who will never see the show live can still buy tickets on eBay, where one Arizona-based watcher listed a "Tonight Show" ticket supposedly autographed by flame-haired O'Brien for $6,000. As of Thursday afternoon, no one had bid on it.

O'Brien May Have to Give Up Rights to Skits

O'Brien had plenty to say about the prospect of his being unable to retain intellectual property rights for some of the material he created at NBC. "Isn't it great to live in a country where a cigar-smoking dog puppet and a bear that masturbates are considered 'intellectual property?'" he joked on the show Tuesday night.

If O'Brien creates a new show on another network, he purportedly won't be allowed to bring some of his best-known bits and characters, such as Triumph the Insult Comic and the Masturbating Bear, among others, with him.

The characters and sketches, according to the Hollywood Reporter, are intellectual property that belongs to NBC, and the network doesn't plan to give them up.

But history may be on O'Brien's side. NBC threatened legal action against David Letterman after the late-night TV veteran moved to CBS in 1993 and began using characters and sketches from his old NBC show. Letterman eventually dropped some of his staples and changed the names of others, according to the Hollywood Reporter, but his classic "Top 10 List" survived.

"It was a wash," New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta told "At some point, you make a decision [and say], 'I've got to cut my losses here and make this go away,' and that's what happened to Letterman. NBC finally said, 'Make this go away … it doesn't help us.'"

All eyes have been on O'Brien after the former "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" host rejected a plan by NBC to move the "Tonight Show" to 12:05 a.m. to make room for an 11:35 show hosted by former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno.

Leno's own 10 p.m. show, "The Jay Leno Show," was canceled after flagging ratings and complaints from local affiliates that the show provided a weak lead-in to local newscasts. Viewership for O'Brien's own show, until recently, was also down sharply compared to the days when Leno hosted.

Leno and O'Brien have both taken shots at NBC and, in some cases, at each other since NBC announced its late-night shuffle. But it has been O'Brien's bitterly comic jabs at the peacock network -- Tuesday night, O'Brien went bilingual in his attacks, saying in Spanish that "NBC is run by brainless sons of goats who eat money and crap trouble" -- that seem to have driven his ratings higher and encouraged passionate fans, including hundreds who held rallies in four U.S. cities earlier this week in support of the host many refer to by the nickname "CoCo."

NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker defended the network's decision to shift Leno back into the 11:35 p.m. time slot he held for 17 years before O'Brien took over "The Tonight Show."

"From a financial standpoint, this is the right move," Zucker said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "We didn't want to do it, because we wanted to keep Conan. But we're going to be fine, even paying Conan to go away."

He told the newspaper he was surprised at the "nasty" turn the shake-up had taken.

"We were not surprised that Conan was disappointed in having his show back up a half hour. But we were very surprised and disappointed at how nasty it turned," he said.

According to O'Brien's camp, the latest drama between O'Brien and NBC revolved around stalled negotiations over O'Brien's exit package and how much his staff of about 200 people would be compensated after the show ends.

Many "Tonight Show" employees lived in New York and worked for O'Brien's former show before moving to California to work on "The Tonight Show."

"The main issue at this stage is how well they're planning on taking care of the people who are out of work, and that's Conan's main concern and that's the focus of all negotiations at this point," Polone told Tuesday.

But NBC criticized Polone's portrayal of the negotiations, calling it a "PR ploy" and arguing that O'Brien's decisions, not NBC's, will leave his staff jobless.

"It was Conan's decision to leave NBC that resulted in nearly 200 of his staffers being out of work," the network said Tuesday in a written statement. "We have already agreed to pay millions of dollars to compensate every one of them. This latest posturing is nothing more than a PR ploy."

Leno explained his side of the story on his show Monday night.

The former (and now future) "Tonight Show" host said he had tried to avoid doing a show in prime time but was convinced by NBC that it could work and that he would be able to keep his staff of 175.

Four months later, he said, network executives informed him they were canceling his show but told him they wouldn't let him out of his contract because he was still "a valuable asset" to the company.

He said he agreed to host his show at 11:35 p.m. after NBC "almost guaranteed" to him that O'Brien would accept a "Tonight Show" shift to 12:05 a.m.

With reports from ABC News' Brian Braiker, Ammu Kannampilly, Gregory Croft and Sheila Marikar.

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