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Conan may find door open at Fox if he bolts NBC

The Associated Press, Saturday, January 9, 2010, 2:24am (PST)

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- If "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien decides to leave NBC over its proposed late-night lineup revamp, he might find a warm welcome waiting for him at Fox.

Fox respects O'Brien's talent and sees him as a good fit, a person at the network said Friday. The person, who lacked authority to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Fox was watching to see how the situation played out but that O'Brien remained under contract with NBC.

Faced with poor ratings for both "The Jay Leno Show" and O'Brien's show, the network is said to be considering returning Leno to his 11:35 p.m. EST slot and moving "Tonight" to midnight.

Representatives for O'Brien did not immediately respond to requests for comment about his plans.

ABC, for its part, indicated a lack of interest if O'Brien becomes a free agent.

"With all due respect to Conan, we like the late night hand that we are currently playing," the network, home of "Nightline" in the late-night slot, said in a statement Friday.

Many NBC affiliates have complained that viewership for their 11 p.m. newscasts have plummeted because Leno's 10 p.m. show is such a weak lead-in.

"I think Jay Leno's a great performer. He's just at the wrong place at the wrong time. There's nothing wrong with making mistakes. There is something wrong with not correcting them," said Bob Prather, president and chief operating officer at Atlanta-based Gray Television Inc., whose station group includes 10 NBC affiliates.

Lisa Howfield, general manager of NBC affiliate KVBC in Las Vegas, said Friday: "I'm excited to have Jay land back in late night. It sounds like a great lineup."

O'Brien, who left jokes about the situation to Leno on Thursday, didn't hold back Friday on "Tonight."

"We've got a great show for you tonight. I have no idea what time it will air — but it's going to be a great show," O'Brien said in his monologue.

O'Brien added later that he wanted to address rumors swirling about his show and Leno's, including one that "NBC is going to throw me and Jay in a pit with sharpened sticks. The one who crawls out gets to leave NBC."

Leno also focused on the proposal Friday.

"To be fair, NBC is working on a solution, they say, in which all parties" will be treated unfairly, he quipped in the monologue. "That certain NBC touch."

NBC's contract with O'Brien reportedly allows the network to move "Tonight" to 12:05 a.m. EST but no later, at the risk of substantial financial penalties. With a two-year contract said to be valued at about $28 million per year, O'Brien would have to think hard about walking away.

Leno's show has averaged 5.8 million nightly viewers since its fall debut, about the same number who watched his final "Tonight" season. By comparison, the season's top-rated 10 p.m. network drama, CBS' "The Mentalist," has an average audience of 17.5 million.

O'Brien is averaging 2.5 million nightly viewers, compared with 4.2 for Letterman's "Late Show," according to Nielsen figures. And the younger audience that O'Brien was expected to woo has been largely unimpressed, with O'Brien and Letterman's shows tying among advertiser-favored viewers ages 18 to 49.

Any change would probably not take effect until March, after the Winter Olympics on NBC.

Network executives have been talking with Leno, O'Brien and their representatives to work out a solution. Meanwhile, online reports about the possible changes prompted the network to issue statements of support for both men, while declining to commit itself to keeping Leno's show on in prime time.

The drama verges on a rerun, recalling the messy battle for "Tonight" that Leno and David Letterman waged in the early 1990s when Johnny Carson decided to surrender the throne. Leno claimed it in 1992, with Letterman becoming his competitor at CBS.

In November, Leno told Broadcasting & Cable magazine he would have preferred to stay with "Tonight" and would take the job again if NBC offered it. For O'Brien, the shakeup would be a snub.

"NBC has dealt with this talent in an unusual way, to put it nicely," industry analyst Bill Carroll said Friday.

After picking O'Brien to succeed Leno as the "Tonight" host, NBC took the revolutionary step of moving Leno to prime time to keep him from jumping to a rival network and to hold down production costs, since a talk show is cheaper to make than a series.

But affiliate displeasure grew quickly when Leno's show proved a poor lead-in for the local late newscasts that generate significant station revenue — and which depend on 10 p.m. shows to funnel viewers to them.

———

AP Television Writer Frazier Moore in New York contributed to this report.

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