O'Brien's departure was unusually bitter and public, as he and Jay Leno traded on-air barbs on their respective shows. Not to be outdone, David Letterman was poking at both.
When the experiment of putting Leno in primetime five nights a week turned into a disaster, with NBC affiliates howling that his ratings were so low he was delivering downsized audiences to their 11 p.m. newscasts, NBC decided to shift Leno back to his old 11:35 p.m. timeslot and move "Tonight" back to a 12:05 a.m. start. But O'Brien balked, and wound up . Leno is set to reclaim the "Tonight" helm March 1.
NBC says O'Brien can take another TV job as early as September. Fox and Comedy Central have been mentioned as his possible next employers.
Leno was the rating winner while hosting "Tonight," but Letterman grabbed that throne when Conan took over.
So who wound up benefiting from the give-and-take of the last few weeks?
"I would say Jay Leno is the winner," Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz observed to "Early Show Saturday Edition" co-anchor Erica Hill. "I know he's gotten badly bruised, his nice-guy image not quite intact, but he gets to go back to 'The Tonight Show,' at 11:30, where he was No. 1 for so many years. I think he'll probably win back most of his audience, although some people may have developed habits of watching some of the competition.
"And Conan is winner financially, but you'd have to say he's certainly a loser beyond that.
"And Letterman, I think, comes out looking fine, except that he has been No. 1 during this period when he's been competing against Conan. He has never beaten Jay consistently, and that may be hard for Dave once the competition (of Leno) returns."
Does Kurtz think O'Brien is destined for a successful future, should he return to late-nights?
"Possibly," Kurtz replied. "Fox is the most likely place for him to land, and Fox can portray Conan as the hip comic who was too edgy for NBC and appealed to a younger audience. But if Conan O'Brien had trouble just beating David Letterman and (ABC's) 'Nightline,' for him to go up against Jay and Dave and ABC's news program - they're gonna be fighting over a smaller share of that pie. On the other hand, Conan probably won a lot of fans in the last couple weeks, because he was perceived as having been pushed off the playground."