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Conan to Flip From NBC to Fox?

January 11, 2009
By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

The Fox network is apparently pouring cold water on NBC’s plans to keep Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon on its late night slate.

Fox execs have leaked to media sources that the network would be interested in a Conan-led late night franchise.

A Fox source indicated that there was interest in O'Brien but acknowledged a legal impediment, that being O’Brien’s contract with NBC.

NBC and O'Brien continue in their efforts to, in essence, renegotiate O’Brien’s deal.

And entertainment contracts are notorious for not necessarily being ironclad.

A major late night offering would make sense for Fox.

The network recently launched “The Wanda Sykes Show,” a late Saturday night program, and may want to enter the weeknight fray with a similarly boundary pushing personality.

Fox's agreement with affiliate stations gives the network the right to program a national late night talk show.

O'Brien may want to make the jump to Fox for an earlier timeslot instead of settling for the after-midnight NBC demotion that’s being bandied around. As an added bonus, the network's younger audience may appreciate Conan's edgier humor.

We just may see a late night battle with O'Brien and Leno going head to chin.

That is, of course, unless Simon Cowell decides he wants to try his hand as a late night curmudgeon.

In the meantime, Leno’s 10 p.m. show has been canceled.

But plans at NBC to push back Leno and O'Brien’s program airings have lawyers mulling over the contracts of both late night hosts.

O'Brien's contract is of particular importance since his show would reportedly be bumped to a less desirable post-midnight slot. NBC execs indicated that they planned to move Leno back to 11:35 p.m., shoving O’Brien back a half-hour to 12:05 a.m.

Why the schedule shuffling?

The ratings have plummeted since September when NBC began the prime-time version of Leno’s former late-night show. Leno’s prime-time program has averaged only about five million viewers a night.

The affiliate station managers have blamed consistently low lead-in audiences for the decline in their news ratings and local stations rely on news programs for the majority of their revenue.

NBC affiliates are scheduled to meet with the network on Jan. 21, and the meeting was bound to get nasty.

To say the Leno experiment was a disaster is an understatement. It almost destroyed the “Tonight Show” franchise, embarrassed Leno and attempted to demote O’Brien.

Meanwhile, O’Brien’s reps quietly let it be known that he hasn’t accepted NBC’s plan, and it’s unlikely that he will agree to it any time soon.

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post tweeted that the Conan move would avoid an expensive breach of contract because he would still be hosting a program with the name “The Tonight Show.”

The beleaguered NBC network can in no way afford mistakes or lawsuits at this time.

With two of the network’s mega stars in a holding pattern, the business and legal stakes are nothing short of humungous.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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