Late night shuffle: What will Conan O’Brien do?

By David Bauder

PASADENA, Calif. — 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 Peter 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 Monday, and NBC said it has not heard a decision from the comic.

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.

O’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.”

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