If "Tonight" show host Conan O'Brien decides he doesn't want to shift back to a post-midnight time slot at NBC, Fox executives have a clear message for him: We love you.
"It's a very compatible fit for our brand," said Kevin Reilly, Fox's entertainment president, on Monday. "He's one of the few guys on the planet who has demonstrated he can do one of these shows every night."
And to make the point even clearer, Reilly, a former NBC executive, said, "I love Conan personally and professionally."
NBC's late-night shuffle, one of the most compelling dramas this television season, hinges on whether O'Brien will accept what is effectively a demotion or go to a network with a spotty record developing a late-night show. NBC confirmed it was ending Jay Leno's prime-time show to mollify angry affiliates. He would appear at 11:35 p.m., followed by O'Brien under the "Tonight" show banner a half hour later.
O'Brien had waited five years after being promised the "Tonight" show and its time slot after the late local news, moving his family and staff from New York to California. That chance lasted half a year. A spokeswoman for O'Brien did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday, and NBC said it has not heard a decision from the comic.
O'Brien found his own situation ripe fodder for comedy on Monday's show, with some pointed jokes at his employer.
"Everybody now wants to know what my plans are," he said. "All I can say is, I plan to keep putting on a great show night after night while stealing as many office supplies as humanly possible. I'm gonna rob this place blind."
He listed a dozen options open to him, which included, "leave television altogether and work in a classier business with better people, like hard core porn."
Other comics chimed in. "Today NBC announced they were bringing back Johnny Carson and they're putting him on at 10 p.m.," said CBS' David Letterman.
NBC said they wanted drama at 10:00 p.m., Leno said. "Now they've got it," he said. "Everyone's mad."
NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin said he had given Leno, O'Brien, and Jimmy Fallon (whose show would start at 1:05 a.m.) the weekend to think about the plan.
"I would love the three of them to stay at NBC," Gaspin said.
Reilly said there have been no negotiations with O'Brien or his representatives over a move.
"We've been pretty clear about the fact that we like him as a talent and we've always been in this business, but that's as far as it's gone," he told reporters at a meeting Monday of the Television Critics Association.
Fox could potentially offer an 11 p.m. time slot, giving O'Brien the jump on both Leno and David Letterman.
That's where Arsenio Hall thrived — briefly — with a syndicated talk show that aired mostly on Fox stations from 1989 to 1994. Other Fox attempts to establish a late-night beachhead with Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase failed spectacularly. In O'Brien's favor: He attracts a younger audience, which Fox seeks.
O'Brien's run at "Tonight" hasn't been particularly successful. NBC's ratings have dropped dramatically since the time Leno was the host, and O'Brien has fallen behind CBS' Letterman. NBC has said it was satisfied because O'Brien was doing fairly well among a youthful audience that is more valuable to advertisers.
Reilly came to O'Brien's defense, saying he's been hurt by the ratings problems of Leno and the local news programs that precede the "Tonight" show.
"He's been playing a little bit with one hand tied behind his back and these things are a long haul," he said. "He's been given six months."
For Fox, O'Brien would offer the advantage of a seasoned performer with his own team intact, as opposed to trying to start a new talk show from scratch with an unproven personality. That's partly why it's been many years since Fox has tried the format.
Fox owns many of its stations, and putting O'Brien in at 11 p.m. would be no problem. Fox can contractually force its show upon its affiliates, many of whom are doing well in the ratings with reruns of old sitcoms, but Reilly said he would want to work with the stations to make sure they're happy.
There would also have to be complicated contractual issues worked out with NBC.
To many, it had seemed a given that Leno would leave NBC for ABC or Fox when his time on "Tonight" ended, but he decided to stay with the company and try the 10 p.m. idea. ABC has indicated a lack of interest in O'Brien.
NBC's proposal would also shift its new talk show host, Fallon, to an hour best known for insomniacs, and put him a half-hour behind chief competitor Craig Ferguson on CBS. Gaspin tried to play it Sunday as a creative plus.
"It allows him to be incredibly experimental and do what he wants to do," Gaspin said. "There will be a lot less pressure on him."
The plan would also likely mark the end of Carson Daly's late-night show. Gaspin said he expected Daly to stay with NBC in some fashion.
AP Television Writers Lynn Elber in Pasadena and Frazier Moore in New York contributed to this report.
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