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Maybe Conan O'Brien Will Wind Up at CBS

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Here's one man's late-night prediction: David Letterman, a big Conan O'Brien fan and no friend to Jay Leno, signs O'Brien to his Worldwide Pants Production Co. Conan takes a long vacation. Then Dave retires when his contract runs out in 2012.

CBS replaces him with Craig Ferguson, the most appealing of all the late-night personalities, currently doing The Late, Late Show at CBS. And it puts O'Brien, clearly a bigger success in the wee hours than the late ones, into Ferguson's current slot. Win. Win. Win. Win. For Letterman, Ferguson, O'Brien and CBS.

And yet another kick in the crotch to NBC.

The Peacock's crazy midnight smashup may put a bunch of people out of work, but it's also swelling the employment ranks in one career group, sources.

Sources now are telling both the Associated Press and the New York Times, reasonably reliable arbiters of journalism, that O'Brien and his beloved network are thisclose to reaching a deal that would pay O'Brien upwards of $30 million to leave NBC altogether and also allow him to start work at another TV outlet as early as September.

Someone would take him, but it might not be who you'd think. Conan joked that he could go to BET and do a show called White All Night, or maybe do a Lifetime movie about a woman in an abusive relationship with her network. Or, he could go to Fox, behind its hit 24, and do a show called 24:05.

Despite a strong anti-Leno backlash among entertainers under 50, Conan is damaged goods. CBS, in the post Late Show slot, may truly be his best alternative a couple of years down the road after all this dust has settled. ABC's not interested. Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly would clearly love to stick it to the network that unceremoniously dumped him 30 months ago (after which the Peacock's problems really started to accelerate). But people at several Fox affiliates have said they don't want NBC "leftovers," and there would be tremendous hurdles to clear space at the stations, many of which have multi-year contracts for syndicated shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons in their late-night slots.

NBC executives, most notably super-ego Dick Ebersol, who's pretty good at sports programming but not so much at comedy, have mounted an anti-Conan campaign, and the wiseguy redhead has descended from ratings king at 12:35 a.m. to big-time also-ran at 11:35 p.m. One reason, says Ebersol, rightly, I think, is that O'Brien didn't make enough of an effort to appeal to folks in the middle of the country, who watch The Tonight Show at 10:35 p.m., Central and Mountain time. Yet another reason for O'Brien to go back to the later slot where he thrived.

On the other hand, Conan has lots of show-biz support. Younger entertainers are almost universally trashing Leno for not doing the stand-up thing (and we're not talking comedy here) and just bowing out gracefully, even though the situation is entirely NBC's fault. The antipathy could cripple Leno's guest list if he does regain hosting duties at Tonight.

Rosie O'Donnell, who has a feel-good family special coming up on HBO, told the critics Leno had a good run: "If you're privileged enough to be asked to drive the bus, you should say 'thank you' and drive it to the best of your ability. And when it's time for them to hire a new driver, you should say, 'Thank you for allowing me to drive this for as long as I did,' and pass the keys to the new guy with red hair and try not to flatten his tires before he even gets going."