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The Big Winner In the 'Tonight Show' Screwup

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Reuters

More bad news for the Labor Department: Add another name to the ranks of the unemployed – Conan O’Brien.

With the inking today of a $45 million severance package, the fledgling former (Or is that, “former fledgling?”) Tonight Show host bids au revoir, not to mention “good riddance” to NBC. Conan’s final show is tomorrow. Jay Leno takes back the show on March 1.

So who triumphed in the most public public relations battle since a certain sex-obsessed golfer wound up with a nine iron draped around his neck?

Here, in descending order, are the PR winners and losers in the lamentable late night saga.

• Biggest Loser – Jeff Zucker

A month ago, the president of NBC was the brightest star in network television, an upwardly mobile executive in whose judgment the peacock had unlimited faith.

What a difference a month makes.

Today, with his network in tatters --- thanks principally to Conan’s nightly network bashing to an ever-expanding audience -- Zucker’s name is now associated with the genius strokes of 

1) moving Leno out of ratings dominance at 11:30 and into ratings purgatory at 10 p.m.

2) moving Conan out of ratings rule at 12:30 a.m. and into ratings revulsion at 11:30 p.m. and 

3) generally wrecking Johnny Carson’s "Tonight Show" legacy.

After painstakingly honing his image at the network for two decades, the velocity of Zucker’s descent has been breathtaking. Never again will he be regarded as NBC’s “fair-haired boy” (and not just 'cuz he’s follicly-challenged).

• Second Biggest Loser – David Letterman

Letterman, of course, has been the big beneficiary of O’Brien’s rocky start. Even after Dave’s awkward confession of a post-romance extortion attempt, his ratings rocketed.

When the O’Brien-Leno controversy began, Letterman handled it in proper bemused, yet detached, style. He poked fun at NBC which, having also unceremoniously ushered him out some years ago, was perfectly understandable.

But then Dave’s mood turned ugly.

Apparently harboring a deep-seated resentment for the comedian who had beaten him in the ratings for so many years, Letterman lit into Leno as being, in effect, a sneaky, double-dealing, two-faced (not to mention, “chinned”) backstabber.

“I probably shouldn’t get into this,” Letterman told his audience Tuesday night, “Lord knows, I have my own problems.”

But “get into” it, he did. And in so doing, Dave came off as a bully, eager to air lingering grudges. It was unseemly, even to those who have admired Letterman through thick and thin.

• Second Biggest Winner – Conan O’Brien

Sure, Conan stuck it to his soon-to-be former employer at every turn. And it’s true, he was nasty. (“Welcome to NBC, where our new slogan is, "No longer just screwing up prime time.")And he did get out with $32 million!!

But ironically, O’Brien seemed to get more comfortable in the late night role as his days dwindled as "Tonight Show" host. The bet here is that tomorrow’s show will be classic “must see” TV.

Despite his unbridled NBC venom, O’Brien handled himself throughout the skirmish with good humor and relative glee. He lobbied hard for his staff, which is always good. And he shared every wacky negotiating detail with his public, which is also positive.

So Conan acquitted himself well, despite the shaky situation. And this fall, when he returns to a network near you, he will be no worse for the wear.

And the biggest public relations winner...?

• Biggest Winner – Jay Leno

Say what you will about him -- He’s boring... not that funny…whatever -- but Jay Leno comes off as a gentleman. Nor does he fold under pressure.

Despite the Letterman vitriol, the Conan barbs and the NBC kerfuffling, Leno steadfastly remained above the battle.

He attacked no one. He dispassionately explained his own history with the network. And he praised O’Brien (even though Letterman accused him of insincerity).

In other words, Leno let the whole thing play out without tipping his hand or ruffling the peacock's feathers. And on March 1 he'll return, relatively unscathed, to the "Tonight Show" perch, where he reigned for many years.

A month or so later, I suspect, Jay Leno will once again be the undisputed king of late night television.

Fraser Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 30 years. He is currently teaches public relations at NYU. He is the author of the Prentice- Hall textbook "The Practice of Public Relations," now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of "Idea Wise."