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Will it be a Fox trot for Conan?

March 17, 2010 | 10:10 am

Fox Broadcasting is inching closer to bringing Conan O’Brien back to late night television.

CONAN Key Fox executives, including Rupert Murdoch, are on board with the plan and would like to finalize a deal in coming weeks so they can make a splash on May 17 when the network unveils its new fall lineup for advertisers in New York.

Several significant issues remain, and the Fox talks could fall apart, according to people close to the negotiations who asked not to be identified because the discussions were meant to be private.

But people close to O’Brien are cautiously optimistic.

“We’ll get there,” one of them said Tuesday.

Fox executives have been huddling to figure out how much it will cost to mount a late-night talk show that would be profitable for Fox stations and affiliates. Stations, hammered by the advertising recession, rely on the profits generated by syndicated reruns such as “The Simpsons” and “The Office,” and it’s unclear how many stations would be willing to substitute those shows for a risky venture — even one starring a big-name host.

But Fox realizes that if it ever wants to get into the late-night game, this is the time. The network, owned by Murdoch’s News Corp., has had its eye on entering the late-night talk-show wars for years.

Indeed, it was Fox’s overtures to O’Brien nine years ago that prompted NBC’s Jeff Zucker in 2004 to promise O’Brien the “Tonight Show” in order to keep him at the peacock network. Zucker’s plan famously unraveled when longtime host Jay Leno decided that he wasn’t ready to retire.

Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly and Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice have been leading the campaign to bring O’Brien to Fox, according to knowledgeable sources. But their bosses have told them to demonstrate that a late-night show would be financially viable. A breakthrough came last week during meetings in New York, when they outlined a late-night scenario that one executive described as “a deal that we could live with.”

It hasn’t been decided whether the show would launch in the fall or January. Meanwhile, O'Brien's camp is weighing whether they can pull off a high-quality network show with the smaller budget -- or if they should roll the dice and shift to cable. 

-- Meg James

Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Evan Agostini/Associated Press.