Conan O’Brien and Fox are “inching closer” to a deal that would land him at the network, according to the Los Angeles Times, which is a TV marriage that makes sense for both of them.

O’Brien has demonstrated that he isn’t the sort of broad talent that Jay Leno is (sorry, Coco fans), but he does possess a small and loyal following that dovetails nicely with Fox’s profile. And the earlier 11 p.m. start time (coming out of local news, if you can call it that, on Fox stations) would give him a leg up and prevent the latenight logjam from becoming a murder-suicide pact, which is what NBC always feared about losing O’Brien or Leno. I suspect NBC execs are sleeping easier about that prospect after seeing O’Brien’s tepid results during his stint on “The Tonight Show,” when the older audience completely tuned out.

The really interesting part is Fox stations’ misgivings about the potential move, indicating that when it comes to latenight, Fox affils fall into the “Bitten many, many times, twice shy” category. But the kind of talent capable of holding down a latenight franchise is rare, and Fox would be stupid not to get a piece of that action with O’Brien if it can.

As for O’Brien, as I told a radio program the other day, the host’s public appearance/concert tour is merely a distraction: The guy wants to host a show on latenight TV, period — despite whatever B.S. his handlers are peddling to those willing to push the party line.

Besides, Bill Carter’s going to need some kind of news hook for that book of his. Without a new show to point toward, the thing’s going to sell like “Desperate Networks.”

Update: A source passes along that the live tour was conceived in part to help illustrate O’Brien’s fan base and create excitement for a TV pact, which sounds logical. There has also reportedly been talk of doing a new program live as a way to set it apart from most other latenight fare, though I’d wager that all kinds of permutations are being discussed at this stage of the game.