By DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK — Shortly before agreeing to the terms of his unpleasant exit from NBC, Conan O’Brien joked on ‘The Tonight Show‘ that his plans for next week include making a big move to Fox.
“Megan Fox,” he said to the laughter of fans who have made him a folk hero for losing his dream job.
A day after sealing his deal with NBC that gives O’Brien $45 million and allows Jay Leno to return to ‘The Tonight Show’ throne, O’Brien airs his final show, with Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks, Neil Young and promised surprises.
Fox – the network – represents the most attractive landing for O’Brien if he wants to continue hosting a daily television talk show. CBS is comfortable with its late-night lineup of David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, ABC has expressed no interest in O’Brien, so Fox is the only one of the four big broadcast networks with room for the late late-night host. Fox has long sought its own late-night franchise.
Still, there are questions about whether Fox affiliates would welcome the pompadoured redhead or not.
While Fox has signaled an interest in O’Brien, there have been no offers or negotiating, said a person familiar with internal discussions O’Brien’s advisers have had, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
“Conan needs to kind of decompress for a little bit,” the person said. “This has been a traumatic experience for him.”
O’Brien will almost certainly wait to hear Fox’s decision before making any moves.
Kevin Reilly, Fox’s chief entertainment executive, lathered O’Brien with love during a recent news conference. “It’s a very compatible fit for our brand,” said Reilly, a former NBC executive. Fox seeks a young audience, and O’Brien has proven adept at reaching that age group, particularly men. Done well, the show could produce significant profit at a time the Fox network is shuttered for the night.
O’Brien would also come with a ready-made show and more than 15 years of late-night experience. That’s something Fox’s previous failures in late night – Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase – didn’t have.
Fox, which had no comment Thursday on O’Brien’s departure, theoretically could force an O’Brien show on its affiliates but doesn’t want to. Many affiliates air sitcom reruns in late night and keep that advertising revenue to themselves. Fox may need to cut a deal to let affiliates in on profits from an O’Brien talk show. One possibility: allow affiliates to air a money-making rerun at 11 p.m. EST and start an O’Brien show half an hour later at the same time as Letterman and Jay Leno.
O’Brien’s ratings are a concern, too. The ‘Tonight’ show ratings declined dramatically when O’Brien took over from Leno and, although O’Brien’s people argue that struggling NBC’s lead-in with Leno and news had much to do with that, he had shown increased vulnerability to Ferguson in his old time slot.
Shelley Goings, the general manager of KFXP-TV, a Fox affiliate in Pocatello, Idaho, said while O’Brien’s sense of humor was a better fit on Fox than NBC, she wasn’t pleased about potentially losing advertising dollars.
“Revenues for all stations across the country have been hitting rock bottom,” she said. “It would not make me happy, for sure.”
Thom Postema, vice president and general manager of WSFX-TV, a Fox affiliate in Wilmington, N.C., said he would welcome an O’Brien show after the local news wraps up at 10:30 p.m. Right now, the station airs reruns of ‘The Office’ and two Fox-made programs – ‘My Name Is Earl’ and ‘Family Guy’ – between 10:30 p.m. and midnight Eastern.
“If the network were to promote him correctly, I think for us we couldn’t go wrong,” Postema said.
Some cable networks will watch the Fox deliberations carefully, but it’s questionable how many possibilities would be open to him. Comedy Central, which once aired O’Brien reruns, might seem a natural fit. But with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert ensconced on Comedy Central’s schedule, the network might not have the room or money for O’Brien.
HBO hasn’t sought to get in the daily late-night game. One possibility taken off the board late last year is the comedy-oriented TBS, where George Lopez has a successful talk show.
Fox’s cable sibling, the FX network, is interested in O’Brien but its chief executive said the comic is a better fit on broadcast TV.
“Conan is one of the great comedic talents of our time, and if he ever became available to basic cable, we’d go after him in a heartbeat,” said John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX. “I kind of doubt that will happen, but you never know.”
AP Business Writer Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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