LOS ANGELES (AP) — Conan O'Brien might find a welcome mat waiting for him at Fox if he decides to bolt NBC over its proposed late-night lineup revamp that would relegate "Tonight" to a post-midnight slot after Jay Leno's show.
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.
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."
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.
Fox stations largely run syndicated fare after local news.
Former "Tonight" host Leno, who could regain half of the 11:35 p.m. EST hour slot in the proposed shakeup that would move O'Brien and "Tonight" to 12:05 a.m. EST, joked in Thursday's monologue about moving to Fox instead. Leno kept it up 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.
All the drama stems from NBC's effort to keep Leno at the network with the prime-time "The Jay Leno Show" after it put O'Brien in at "Tonight" last year.
Both shows have drawn poor ratings, and 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.
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.
Affiliates said Friday they'd welcome the change.
"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: "I'm excited to have Jay land back in late night. It sounds like a great lineup."
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.
"The performance forced the issue. Unfortunately, the ratings, particularly in November, were such that it was not something the network could ignore," said Carroll, an analyst with Katz Television, a media-buying firm that advises local stations.
NBC affiliates saw their late newscast ratings drop 5 percent to as much as 25 percent with Leno in place, Carroll said.
Carroll said Comcast Corp., which has agreed to buy NBC from General Electric Co. in a multibillion-dollar deal, probably weighed in on the woes affecting the network's schedule. NBC has been lingering in fourth place in the ratings behind CBS, Fox and ABC.
According to reports this week, NBC has as many as 18 pilots for prospective new series, more than enough material to fill Leno's five hours a week of prime time.
KVBC's Howfield said the 10 p.m. vacancy should be filled with hourlong dramas. She suggested starting with "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which was bumped to 9 p.m. by the prime-time Leno experiment.
Prather also backs a return to traditional series.
"The sooner they can get what I call regular prime-time programming back in there, I think they'll be fine. NBC owned Thursday night for years with 'ER' and there's no reason they can't own nights like that again with good programming," he said.
AP Television Writer Frazier Moore in New York contributed to this report.
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