Lynette Rice
February 10, 2010 AT 04:30 PM EST

It’s obviously water under the bridge now, but the Hollywood Reporter’s ESQ column makes a provocative argument that Conan O’Brien may have triumphed in court over NBC’s decision to force him out of the 11:30 p.m. timeslot. Legal blogger Matthew Belloni appears to have seen the actual deal – one that’s been amended several times since O’Brien first came to NBC in 1993. In a 2002 amendment, Belloni writes, the specifics of when and where he’ll appear are apparently spelled out in black and white:  if Jay Leno ever left, O’Brien would be installed as host of Tonight, which was described as the “series that airs at 11:35 p.m.” What’s more, his original deal to host Late Night was described as the “second network series after the end of primetime.”

Yet in the 2004 amendment – in which O’Brien was specifically given the Tonight Show after a five-year waiting period — there is no mention of the timeslot.  This is surely why a key insider told EW that timeslot restrictions didn’t exist and why NBC/Universal Chairman Jeff Zucker echoed as much to PBS’ Charlie Rose. Argues Belloni, “You’ve got to read an amended contract in the context of all other prenegotiated elements. O’Brien’s 2004 deal incorporated by reference and ratified all the terms of his prior deals — including the Tonight Show definition — and says any conflicts between NBC’s standard terms and the negotiated terms are governed by what’s been negotiated.”

O’Brien’s team eventually negotiated a more than favorable settlement: not only did he receive some $30-plus million, he has the right to find a new job quickly (though he can’t show up elsewhere until Sept. 1).

An insider familiar to the negotiations dismissed the column by saying it was not accurate. NBC declined to comment.

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