How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Conan and NBCU's Zucker's first clash

January 13, 2010: 9:36 AM ET

Conan has made it clear that he has no interest in having his Tonight Show bumped to 12:05 am to make room for Jay Leno at 11:35. (And wouldn't that make it the Tomorrow Show, anyway?)

That's an ultimatum for NBC Universal (GE) CEO Jeff Zucker who must now (quickly)decide either to keep Conan in the slot he was promised or watch him jump to another network -- probably News Corp.'s Fox (NWSA).

Turns out, this is not the first time that O'Brien and Jeff Zucker, the CEO of NBC Universal, have skirmished. The first was, by certain measures, even fiercer than today.

The first time these two faced off was in the '80s, at Harvard. Zucker was the editor of the Crimson, the daily newspaper. O'Brien ran the Lampoon, the humor magazine.

Back in the day, the staffs of the two publications often pulled pranks on each other. And in that vein, early one morning, O'Brien and his pals broke into the Crimson offices to steal that day's run of papers.

O'Brien riffed about this stunt -- proudly, in fact -- when I talked with him for a 2007 Fortune profile of Zucker, "Life imitates TV,":  "Jeff went nuclear right away," O'Brien recalled. "He called the police. Not the campus police, which were the kind and gentle police. He called the Cambridge police."

O'Brien soon found himself spread-eagled, cuffed, and listening to his Miranda rights -- in the hands of a Cambridge cop.

"I remember thinking that Jeff is a different species than I am," O'Brien said, of course milking the story for comic effect. "That species could easily rip my throat open."

Well, Zucker is one of the most competitive guys you'll ever meet, He did not apologize to O'Brien. "Why would I?" Zucker told me, grinning. "He's the guy who started it."

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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