Analysis: Conan a Tricky Fit for Fox
Late-night option looks promising for network, but may make stations see red
By Michael Malone and Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/14/2010 12:30:17 PM
Earlier this week, O'Brien rejected NBC's plan to move the iconic Tonight Show to 12:05 in an open letter to the public.
For the Fox owned and affiliated stations, picking up O'Brien would appear to cause far more pain than gain. The performance of the stations in the Top 10 markets at 11:30 p.m. is largely equivalent to NBC's Tonight Show ratings in the same hour. But the stations keep far more ad inventory in that hour now than they would if they were forced to give it up to Fox. Every half-hour syndicated show offers stations as much as six minutes of advertising inventory to sell, while a half-hour of network inventory typically offers only about a minute.
Sources say Fox brass has asked the Fox-owned stations to run the numbers, and stations have responded that they expect they would lose millions if the local outlets had to give a late-night hour back to the network. The Fox affiliates fall somewhere between lukewarm and intrigued about the notion of O'Brien shifting to their late night air, perhaps at 11:30. Some wonder why he should expect to do better on Fox after posting lagging ratings during his Tonight Show run, while others say he's a rare bankable talent that may be a free agent.
One Fox affiliate insider warned that Chevy Chase also seemed to be a good fit for Fox in late night some time ago: a household name that matched up well with the Fox demographic. Chase's Fox show of course flamed out quickly in the early â€˜90s. "They thought there might be some flow there, but it just didn't happen," says the affiliate. "It's like drilling for oil--you just don't know what you're going to get."
Fox affiliates board chairman Brian Brady says O'Brien-to-Fox is at least worth noodling. "It's an interesting proposition," he says. "The affiliates will work closely with Fox to explore the possibilities."
Addressing reporters at TCA last weekend, Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly acknowledged that a host of issues would have to be worked out with affiliates to pave the way for a late-night show, and said the network would keep in mind the economic struggles affiliates have been through of late. One Fox affiliate manager said "additional inducements" would have to be made to get stations on board with the plan.
But for Fox, now might be the perfect time to make O'Brien a deal. If he elects to depart NBC, he has nowhere else to go if he wants to remain a late-night host on broadcast TV. ABC has stated that it isn't interested in him, and CBS' line-up of David Letterman and Craig Ferguson is full and clicking along nicely.
Fox executives have stated that building the late-night franchise about which they have long dreamed (and often tried, with the likes of Joan Rivers, Chase and Spike Feresten) probably has the best shot with the experienced and well-known O'Brien behind the wheel. And what better time to stick it to struggling NBC?
Ultimately, Fox must decide what's in its better long-term financial interest: a late-night franchise with Conan O'Brien, or healthy--and happy--TV stations?
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