Network has long harbored latenight ambitions

Nearly 25 years ago, a young writer named Conan O’Brien joined the staff of Fox’s second stab at a latenight franchise, “The Wilton North Report.”

“Wilton North” — a misguided attempt at mixing news with comedy — was a quick failure in 1987, and Fox affiliates demanded that it be canceled after just four weeks.

Now, with his “The Tonight Show” tenure apparently coming to a close, O’Brien could very well be heading back to the latenight Fox slot he left behind two decades ago — but this time as host.

It’s far from a slam dunk solution for O’Brien, however.

There are still a slew of obstacles standing in his way at Fox, including those same network affiliates. And several Fox insiders wonder whether it would even be possible to launch a latenight Conan O’Brien franchise anytime soon.

Still, once O’Brien manages to settle out of his NBC contract — and that’s the route he and his reps appear to be taking — it’s entirely possible that Fox could carve out a home for him, sources close to the situation believe.

Fox execs have long harbored latenight ambitions, and established latenight hosts like O’Brien don’t suddenly become available every day. If Fox ever wanted to get into the latenight business, some believe they better do it now.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Fox Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly said launching a latenight franchise is “never entirely off the agenda. That is something we’re always looking at.”

Indeed, Fox went after O’Brien in 2004, which led to NBC’s unusual five-year “Tonight Show” succession plan. And several hosts have been groomed for a potential Fox weeknight strip, including Orlando Jones (whose FX show flopped), Spike Feresten (whose Saturday night “Talkshow” recently left the airwaves) and Wanda Sykes.

Fox abandoned latenight after its 1993 “Chevy Chase Show” debacle but for a long time still held the right to jump back in and clear an 11 p.m. show with affils.

That window appears to have expired, as Fox never found the right time or host to jump back in.

In the ensuing years, Fox’s owned and affiliated stations have tried a mix of firstrun syndie fare (failed yakkers like “The Magic Hour”) and off-net sitcoms in the latenight hours. More recently, Telepictures’ “George Lopez Tonight” was originally developed for syndication with Fox outlets in mind before going to TBS instead.

Those syndicated sitcoms have proven to be a financial boon for stations, as they rep an alternative to news and talkshows on ABC, NBC and CBS outlets. What’s more, the barter agreements with distributors give stations much more local ad time than a network show would.

“I don’t know if you feel good about losing the inventory in those valuable time periods,” said one exec.

For latenight clearances, stations also have commitments that require them to air an off-net show within a given time frame (usually before midnight). Plus, in the case of strips for which they paid cash, including this fall’s off-net bow of “How I Met Your Mother,” it becomes a bigger financial issue if the show is pushed to a time period where ad rates are lower.

Beyond that syndie fare, several Fox stations air an 11 p.m. newscast in addition to their 10 p.m. news.

These are likely the reasons why, according to Broadcasting and Cable, some affiliates expressed hesitation this week about clearing a network yakker.

“Even Fox’s owned stations, in crunching the numbers, would have to closely examine the economic consequences of giving up the 11 p.m. hour.

This would be built on their back,” said one exec at a rival conglom.

For Fox, there’s the issue of what O’Brien would or wouldn’t accept in coming to the network.

Despite potential grumbling, if Fox toppers signs off on O’Brien, then he’d clear at least 40% of the country at 11 p.m. and key major markets right off the bat on Fox O&Os.

From there, it’s trickier for the hypothetical show. Just as Fox had to find a mix of Fox and non-Fox stations to clear its long-gone Fox Kids morning and afternoon blocks, the network would have to go market by market to put together a patchwork of latenight clearances.

With that in mind, Fox execs would likely find stations in at least another 20% of the country that could clear O’Brien at 11 p.m.

That makes for 60% of Nielsen homes, in pattern at 11 p.m. — not a bad start.

In another chunk of the country, O’Brien could perhaps be cleared at 11:30 or midnight. But the host still wouldn’t be seen off the bat throughout the entire country as he is now.

Clearance issues aside, the budget for a Fox “Conan O’Brien Show” wouldn’t be nearly as hefty as what NBC spends on “The Tonight Show.” And Fox would have to find money to market the show, as it presently doesn’t have to allocate any dollars toward a stripped series on its air.

“Do you really want to take on that daypart with a large investment, plus having the consequence of adversely affecting your stations?” asked one rival exec.Once those clearance and budget issues are settled, it gets easier. O’Brien already has a loyal staff — much of whom moved with him from New York to Los Angeles — so a production team would already be in place.

Fox could also quickly find a sound stage and erect a set for such a show, which perhaps could launch as soon as the fall.

Of course, this all assumes that NBC and O’Brien could part ways without any lingering ramifications (such a non-compete clauses).

“I don’t believe anything is insurmountable,” one exec said.

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