Fox throws a little gasoline on the Conan O'Brien fire
Fox, never one to miss an opportunity to make a competitor's life more difficult, has indicated that if Conan O'Brien wants to leave NBC, it would be happy to talk.
O'Brien, who is being asked to move "The Tonight Show" from 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m. to make room for Jay Leno's return to late night, has not made up his mind on whether he'll take one for the team or take a walk. Leno's moving back to late night because NBC affiliates are beyond frustrated with his 10 p.m. show and what its ratings are doing to their late local news.
Of course, Fox has toyed with late night before (Chevy Chase, anyone?), but quietly telling inquiring reporters that "Conan would be a great fit for Fox" could be just as much about annoying NBC chiefs Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin as it is about trying to start its own late-night franchise.
Fox couldn't just jump into the late-night game. It would have to ask, and in some cases beg, its affiliates for the time to carry a late show. The stations won't hand over that time just out of the goodness of their hearts. Furthermore, Fox is already asking (or is it demanding?) that its affiliates give it a cut of any money they get from cable operators for carrying their signals. The logic is that because Fox provides the affiliates with programming, it should get a cut of any money distributors pay them to carry the signal.
While Fox is spinning one thing, it is unclear whether the brass at its parent company News Corp. are really that interested in getting into this game. It's true the network made a run at Conan six years ago (a move that led NBC to anoint Conan as Jay Leno's eventual successor, which led NBC to put Leno in prime time, which led to the mess NBC currently finds itself in), but the company may have different priorities now.
If Fox does seriously go after O'Brien, it won't be cheap. Yes, NBC may have big penalties to pay O'Brien if he were to be bounced from "The Tonight Show." But right now NBC is only talking about bouncing O'Brien out of his time slot, not the show (so tricky!). NBC could even bench O'Brien for a couple of years if he does want to leave, although it would be more likely to try to extract big payment from whoever wants his services.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press