By SAM SCHECHNER And SHIRA OVIDEComedian Conan O'Brien and his advisers were mulling career options Friday, including jumping to a rival television network, people familiar with the matter said, leaving the fate of NBC's late-night shake-up in limbo.
A person familiar with Mr. O'Brien's camp said there had been "approaches" by other networks since it emerged Thursday that NBC hopes to return former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno to his longtime 11:35 p.m. eastern perch at the General Electric Co. network, displacing Mr. O'Brien.
One suitor is News Corp.'s Fox network, which has had early discussions with Mr. O'Brien's circle about hosting another late-night show, according to other people. News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. O'Brien, who currently hosts "The Tonight Show," is the big question mark in NBC's plan, which is an about-face after the network installed Mr. Leno in a nightly prime-time show in September. The move was greeted by a hailstorm of criticism, and the show has had lackluster viewership.
NBC's plan would push Mr. O'Brien's "Tonight" back by half an hour to 12:05 Eastern time to make room for a shortened version of Mr. Leno's current show, according to people familiar with the matter.
If Mr. O'Brien doesn't agree, Mr. Leno would return to hosting "Tonight" for its normal hour, one of these people said. Although the moves aren't finalized, Mr. Leno has agreed in principle to both options, the person said, adding: "One way or another, Jay will be on at 11:35."
An NBC spokeswoman didn't have any comment. The network said yesterday that remains "committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC."
Mr. O'Brien faces potential pitfalls regardless of what he chooses to do. Staying at NBC would entail following Mr. Leno and losing his coveted time slot less than a year after his June debut. Moving away could put him in competition with Mr. Leno just as some television executives have expressed concern about the size of Mr. O'Brien's audience.
From Sept. 21 to Jan. 3, Mr. O'Brien's "Tonight" averaged about half as many viewers as Mr. Leno garnered a year earlier, according to Nielsen Co. Mr. O'Brien has seen far less steep declines among younger viewers, and he has remained even with his CBS competitor David Letterman among viewers in the the key 18-to-49-year-old category in the fourth quarter.
People close to Mr. O'Brien say his ratings declines result from Mr. Leno's poor performance earlier in the evening, according to a person familiar with their thinking.
Fox executives are potentially interested in Mr. O'Brien and are crunching the numbers to see whether adding Mr. O'Brien would make sense, according to people familiar with the matter. The conversations haven't yet turned serious, one of the people said, in part because Mr. O'Brien is still under contract to NBC.
"While Conan is a great talent, he's still under contract with NBC, so we'll have to see how it all plays out," a Fox spokesperson said.
Among Fox's concerns are the shrinking profits of late night as competition grows, and Mr. O'Brien's soft ratings, the people said. The network could also have trouble persuading local Fox TV stations to give up shows they have already purchased to fill their late-night hours.
Another possible home for Mr. O'Brien could be Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, which was interested in the possibility of picking up Mr. Leno in late 2008.
But ABC has had relative ratings success in the past year with its late-night newsmagazine "Nightline," apparently damping its interest. "With all due respect to Conan, we like the late-night hand that we are current playing," an ABC spokesman said.
Write to Sam Schechner at firstname.lastname@example.org and Shira Ovide at email@example.com