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Conan O'Brien's post-NBC options

January 15, 2010 |  1:43 pm

With Conan O'Brien's management team busy trying to figure out how to free their client from NBC with the most money and least restrictions on when he can find a new home, we thought we'd look at some of his options.

CONANCASUAL Fox is the most obvious choice, and Kevin Reilly, the network's entertainment president, has not been subtle about how much he likes O'Brien. But, as we've previously noted lots of times, the network's affiliates would be a hard sell. They already have programming in the 11 p.m. hour and while sitcom reruns may not seem sexy, they are big cash generators for local TV stations.

With Fox already trying to get affiliates to give the network a cut of any money they get from cable operators for carrying their local stations, asking for a time slot on top of it may be a reach. Fox's own TV stations may also be wary about late night for the same reason. Those reruns cost a lot of money.

Roger Ailes, the Fox News chief who also oversees the company's TV stations, said he hadn't done all the math but anticipated there would be expensive programming contracts that would have to be written off. The network could try for the 11:30 time slot, which might be an easier sell to its stations, although that would put O'Brien against Letterman and Leno.

But the idea that Conan can walk out of NBC today and pop up on Fox Monday is a little far-fetched even if NBC were to cut him loose with no restrictions on when he can go back on TV. Fox would be unlikely to pay the estimated $12 million to $15 million NBC was paying O'Brien. Wonder if they can at least cut a deal to rent O'Brien's new studio.

Having said that, of course if Fox really wants O'Brien, it will make it happen. Rupert Murdoch wanted the Wall Street Journal and got it over the concern of shareholders. Conan O'Brien would be a much easier sell.

If Fox decides to pass, ABC seems an unlikely option. Steve McPherson, that network's entertainment chief, said ABC is content with "Nightline" and Jimmy Kimmel. We're pretty sure neither the CW or Ion are looking to get into the late-night game.

So that leads us to cable. Though O'Brien's sensibilities may seem a perfect fit for HBO, the pay cable channel really isn't in the daily programming business. Having a daily show to hype would be a huge hassle even for the cash-rich HBO. Whether O'Brien would want a weekly or monthly show remains to be seen. Showtime and Starz would also be wary about getting into the daily-show business for the same reasons. And there is no way O'Brien could make the kind of money he's been making if he went to pay or commercial cable.

Comedy Central is the most obvious fit for O'Brien's sensibilities. But they have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert from 11 p.m. to midnight, and if O'Brien didn't want midnight at NBC, why would he want it on Comedy Central?

For now, it seems George Lopez is probably safe on TBS.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times

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