A Fox insider confirmed that the network has always been interested in Conan O’Brien for its (struggling) late-night lineup – says “he’s great!” – but cautioned that the comedian is still under contract with NBC. Still, that hasn’t stopped media outlets from posting reports that the competition may be gearing up to steal the 46-year-old host of The Tonight Show should he balk at a plan to move Jay Leno back to 11:30 p.m. Right now, NBC remains committed to O’Brien as its Tonight Show host; it released a statement saying, “He is a valued part of our late-night lineup, as he has been for more than 16 years and is one of the most respected entertainers in television.” But questions are sure to arise over whether O’Brien would settle for a midnight berth behind his predecessor, should NBC follow through with its already controversial plan. For now, nothing’s set in stone so no one’s talking — but the network could be waiting to make an official announcement on Sunday, when it meets with the nation’s TV critics in Pasadena, Calif.
On the one hand, having the (once popular) Leno as a lead-in could give O’Brien the ratings boost he needs. The comedian is routinely trounced by David Letterman — season-to-date, The Late Show is averaging 4.2 million while The Tonight Show trails at a mere 2.53 million. O’Brien’s Tonight Show is down 50 percent versus a year ago when Leno was pulling in an average 5.02 million while wrapping up his final year as the King of Late Night. At the same time, O’Brien probably wouldn’t have signed a multi-million deal with The Tonight Show almost six years ago if it meant airing at midnight — or else he might have bolted to the competition once his contract on Late Night expired. Ever the class act, O’Brien didn’t refer to the big shakeup in his Jan. 7 monologue (Leno, meanwhile, quipped, “I understand Fox is beautiful this time of year”). But O’Brien’s not above a little self-loathing. In his opening night monologue last summer, O’Brien gave a humble shout-out to the ”man who hosted this show for 17 years [and] took very good care of this franchise…Mr. Jay Leno,” before deadpanning, ”and he’s gonna be coming back on the air, I think, in two days — three days, maybe, tops.”
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