Several factors could still face pairing

Fox is looking to play the role of spoiler in NBC’s attempts to keep Conan O’Brien.

As the Peacock and O’Brien continue to hammer out his future at the network, Fox is now sending not-so-subtle hints that it would be willing to launch a late-night franchise around the red-headed comedian.

“We’ve always been interested in late night and we’re always looking to bring great new talent to Fox,” a network 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.”

How serious Fox might be about luring O’Brien away remains to be seen. Some Fox insiders were dismissing the idea on Thursday, noting that Fox’s owned and affiliated stations do quite well in late night with off-net sitcoms.

Stations wouldn’t make nearly as much money by giving up that local time to clear a network talker — and the ratings declines experienced by “Tonight” under O’Brien (although much of that can be attributed to NBC’s woes, not O’Brien) wouldn’t help.

Yet Fox has made rumblings through the years that it would like to get back into the late night game, having recently launched the Saturday night yakker “The Wanda Sykes Show.”

But the net — which first launched in late night, with 1986′s “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” — has been scared away from the daypart ever since 1993′s “Chevy Chase Show,” considered one of network TV’s biggest debacles of all time. (Its other foray into the time slot, the news/comedy hybrid “Wilton North Report,” was another disaster.)

Insiders confirm that under Fox’s deal with affiliates, it has the right to clear a late night talker.

The net wouldn’t do so without first consulting with stations — which would have to figure out what to do with its 11 p.m. post-news syndie fare. But nonetheless, if Fox opted to pull the trigger, it would be able to immediately get nationwide clearance for a Conan O’Brien show.

Fox may offer an attractive alternative to O’Brien, who’s now facing a move to midnight — behind a newly relocated 11:30 p.m. half-hour edition of “The Jay Leno Show.”

For starters, he’d air at 11 p.m. on Fox — a full hour earlier than his best-case scenario now at NBC. What’s more, he’d be going from the last-place network to the first-place web among adults 18-49.

And O’Brien’s edgy, youth-oriented wit might also fit better with Fox’s audience.

It was Fox’s overtures to O’Brien in 2004, of course, that got NBC into the conundrum it is in today. Faced with the prospect of O’Brien jumping to Fox then, NBC set up its unusual succession plan for “Tonight” — keeping Leno there until 2009, when O’Brien took over.

But with Leno still dominating the late night slot, NBC carved out the 10 p.m. strip in order to keep him at the network.

That at least kept both Leno and O’Brien on the net for a period of time, but it may have just delayed what may now be an inevitable fact: That between Leno and O’Brien, there may be only room for one at NBC — and Peacock execs have thrown their weight behind Leno.

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