Jay Leno talk turns to Conan O'Brien

9:37 PM PST 01/08/2010 by James Hibberd, AP

Speculation abounds that 'Tonight' host may switch networks

On Thursday, the industry was abuzz about Jay Leno and the fate of his primetime talk show.

But on Friday, the focus shifted to another NBC host -- Conan O'Brien -- and speculation that he may jump to another network due to NBC's rollback effort reneging on his "Tonight Show" agreement.

If NBC gets its wish, the network could be in a strong position moving into next season. Scheduling a half-hour version of "The Jay Leno Show" at 11:35 p.m. and then an hourlong "Tonight" with O'Brien just after midnight would not only free up 10 p.m. for scripted programming but also fire two barrels onto CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman." Letterman's hour would, in effect, face both Leno and O'Brien. Between the two, it isn't hard to predict that NBC would easily reclaim its title of late-night leader.

Leno is apparently up for the change. But O'Brien hasn't signed on. If O'Brien skips to a rival network, the late-night landscape will be in for a whole new competitive makeover.

A source at ABC denied interest in O'Brien, expressing confidence in the network's current late-night figurehead, Jimmy Kimmel, whose show has posted gains this season. But a Fox source sent a clear signal of interest.

"We've always been interested in late-night, and we’re always looking to bring great new talent to Fox," the well-placed source said. "While Conan would be a great fit for Fox, he’s still under contract with NBC, so we’ll just see how all of this plays out."

Forget Simon Cowell -- it's O'Brien who may be Fox's biggest X-factor.

Another way to read the comment is that Fox is merely mucking with a competitor. Remember, Fox's overtures toward O'Brien years ago helped push NBC into locking down the former "Simpsons" writer by promising him "The Tonight Show" in 2009, a agreement whose implications are still being played out. Even if O'Brien stays at NBC, another network expressing interest puts pressure on a rival.

There are also a couple contractual wrinkles that discourage a O'Brien changing networks. One is that O'Brien's contract includes a $40 million penalty fee if NBC takes away the "Tonight Show." The network seems confident that by keeping the program's name unchanged -- even if the time period moves -- that it doesn't violate his contract. Another is that O'Brien's contract may not allow him to change networks, at least not right away, though one report suggested that NBC wouldn't block him.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking.

NBC would love to have a positive resolution to its current debacle to announce at its press tour session Sunday. And with affiliates getting antsy, the network prefers to make a change shortly after its Winter Olympics coverage.

People close to O'Brien say the host has received overtures from "several places" and that he will likely not make a decision before March 1.

Though even if Leno and O'Brien get sorted, there's always the possibility of more news stemming from other changes in NBC's late-night lineup.

"Nobody is talking about Jimmy Fallon," marveled an NBC insider.

Or Carson Daly.

"Yeah, or Carson Daly."
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