Whenever the new Conan O'Brien's show starts up, expect one thing for sure -- lower visibility for the short term, perhaps less viewership than he got on NBC.
With a proposed Fox deal, O'Brien will be fighting to displace some syndicated late-night programming -- which Fox affiliates won't or are contractually forbidden to move.
There is also history to consider. Fox affiliates may be a little gun-shy because of the network's high-profile late-night failures: Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase. For Fox, the late-night time period always seemed a perfect fit for its young skewing audience.
By not taking O'Brien, many stations get to keep much more advertising inventory for proven shows like "Seinfeld" and "Two and a Half Men" than what networks typically give stations to sell in network programs.
So it makes sense that Fox, at least reportedly, wants to be careful about the money it spends: some $60 million in annual TV production costs versus the $90 million that NBC Universal paid. O'Brien's contract with NBC was around $12 million. It looks to be lower with Fox.
Some reports have suggested syndication is a possibility for O'Brien.
If O'Brien went that direction, he would need much more time to get a late-night lineup arranged - which typically happens with syndicated programming. O'Brien could be looking at 2011 at the earliest. All this would have been easier, say about 15 years ago, when "The Arsenio Hall Show" was able to make a go of it for Paramount in the '90s.
Right now, many expect O'Brien could get perhaps 75% of Fox' stations. This is typically not always enough for national TV advertisers' media budgets -- which was no doubt factored into Fox's reportedly lower offer for O'Brien.
Finally, in a marketplace that pulls shows with increasing haste, Fox would need to have some extended patience -- much more than for prime-time shows -- as the network looks to build a daypart it has never before been successful in.
Fox will need lots of patience. Tons of patience. Loads of patience. Because Conan is the kind of talent that people like to admire, but never watch. If they wanted to watch him, really, they'd have watched when he was on the air, for seven months, against weak competition, Dave, who Leno is having little trouble beating fairly regularly, even now.