Fox weighing latenight option

As Conan O’Brien hits the road this week, it’s still unclear how — and when — the former “Tonight Show” host will return to television.

According to insiders, Fox hasn’t made much progress in sealing a deal with O’Brien, as plenty of financial issues still remain.

“Everyone wants it,” said one insider. “But is it financially feasible?”

It’s a given that divisions such as the Fox TV Stations, Twentieth

Television and 20th Century Fox TV may all take at least a short-term financial hit should an O’Brien latenighter become a reality for Fox.

That’s why it’s believed the decision will ultimately come down to whether or not News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch is willing to lose money in order to get into the latenight game.

Murdoch, of course, is not adverse to taking such gambles — think about his play that brought the NFL to a then-young Fox in 1994 and his more recent acquisition of the Wall Street Journal. A weekday latenight franchise is the last major programming frontier where Fox is not a contender against ABC, CBS and NBC, and the drive for parity with the Big Three has certainly motivated Murdoch in the past.

But, given the off-net sitcom contracts that Fox’s O&Os — and most of its affiliates — have in place, it’s looking more likely that an O’Brien show would air at 11:30 p.m., instead of 11 p.m. after Fox affils’ 10 p.m. newscasts. That would allow stations to accommodate at least one of their latenight off-net sitcom commitments.

Ironically, the Fox stations are somewhat boxed in by O’Brien’s old employer, NBC Universal. Under the stations’ deal with the Peacock to carry “30 Rock” repeats in New York and Los Angeles, Fox has to run the show in the 11 p.m. hour on O&OS WNYW New York and KTTV Los Angeles; it can’t be moved to its other stations in those markets, MyNetworkTV affils WWOR and KCOP. Fox stations also run NBC U’s “The Office” in latenight, and there might be some guarantee issues that would make it hard for the stations to juggle the skedding of those reruns.

Moreover, an O’Brien talker could also impact 20th Century Fox TV’s upcoming sale of frosh hit “Modern Family” to stations, Fox affils and otherwise.

Nonetheless, Murdoch may decide that O’Brien’s availability makes it a now-or-never moment for Fox, which has famously struggled to find a weekday latenight franchise. O’Brien’s string of sold-out live performances suggests an energized, demo-friendly fan base that would turn out in force for their hero’s new TV venture.

O’Brien is even getting some unsolicited help from Baton Rouge-based Lamar Advertising, which has started posting the comedian’s Twitter feed on digital billboards across the country.

O’Brien’s 30-city “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour kicks off tonight in Eugene, Ore. It hits Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheater on April 24-25 and Gotham’s Radio City Music Hall June 1-2.

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