Fox-O'Brien talks still in preliminary stages

Net reportedly presented host with the framework for a deal

He has become the most famous out-of-work American.

Save for a few weeks of vacation after he signed off Jan. 22 as "Tonight Show" host, Conan O'Brien has stayed in the news. First, he launched a Twitter account, then came the announcement of his 40-city comedy tour, and now attention has shifted to what he will do next on TV.

The camp of the late-night host has engaged with Fox, long considered the most logical new TV home for O'Brien, whose sensibility is in sync with that network's core young-male demographic.

But talks are in preliminary stages, and the two sides have not been in communication in the past two weeks.

Still, a late-night show on Fox remains a viable option for O'Brien that has wide support at the network, starting with toppers Peter Rice and Kevin Reilly. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch had said publicly that he would back the idea if it makes money.

To do so, a Fox late-night show would have to trim significantly the $50 million-plus annual budget that "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" had at NBC, in addition to the host's eight-figure salary.

Fox reportedly has presented O'Brien with a framework for a deal, but it is said to have included no numbers.

Then there is the factor of clearing a show on all Fox stations, which might have to be done in stages as station groups are under varying long-term deals for off-network series during the 11 p.m. hour and could push the start of an O'Brien show to 11:30 in some markets.

Surprisingly, O'Brien was not brought up during Fox's most recent affiliate calls. Also, News Corp. COO Chase Carey last week reiterated the company's plan to go after affiliates for a portion of retransmission-consent cash -- interesting timing if the company is attempting to rally its stations to back a late-night show fronted by O'Brien.

O'Brien's talks with Fox are not in an exclusive stage, and he continues to entertain offers from other suitors.

"(The issues) at Fox require you to look at other alternatives," a person close to the host said.
O'Brien has been pitched about two dozen ideas for his next TV gig, including five or six legitimate enough for consideration.

He is said to be comfortable in the traditional talk format in which he has worked for 17 years, but O'Brien also is said to be open to shaking things up. He reportedly is sticking with doing a daily show, as opposed segueing to a weekly series a la Bill Maher, and essentially is choosing among a late-night show on Fox, a syndicated series -- possibly in a pre-primetime slot -- and a cable show.

O'Brien is said to have been intrigued by an overture by syndicator Debmar-Mercury, which cited the animated comedy "South Park" (which Debmar-Mercury sells) as an example that edgy content like that for which O'Brien is known in late-night can exist in early fringe. Under lax restrictions during the 4:30-7:30 p.m. period, Debmar-Mercury has edited only a handful of episodes of the Comedy Central cartoon to run it then.

Additionally, there are a lot of holes in early fringe on station groups nationwide that could be filled by an O'Brien talker.

"You can do a lot more in those time periods than you used to, ratings there are higher, and there is a lot of money to be made," a person close to the conversations said.

Discussions are ongoing on several fronts, but O'Brien's focus is on his upcoming Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on TV tour, which might get a feature-length documentary treatment if talks with director Rodman Flender come to fruition.