What’s next for Conan O’Brien

So now that Conan O’Brien has wrapped up his tenure at NBC in late night after sixteen years, what’s next for the once low-key talk show host?

Mr. O’Brien could have offers from other competing networks from several cable networks¬† and at least one broadcast network. And he may have helped his cause on Friday night: Ratings for his final Tonight Show – after only seven months – scored the highest 18-49 numbers for NBC all season (excluding football), even outdrawing anything the peacock network has run in prime-time.

The final Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien drew a 4.8 Nielsen rating among adults 18-49 and a 7.0 household rating in 55 metered markets. Beginning Monday, NBC will run older Late Night with Conan O’Brien reruns (his old show) until February 11, when the Winter Olympics start the next day.

As part of his exit deal with NBC, Mr. O’Brien collects a total of $45 million of severance with $4.5 million going to his executive producer, $32 million going to Mr. O’Brien himself and the rest to employees who worked for the show. The deal also keeps him from hosting another program until September.

So, what’s next? Here are the possibilities:

Fox. This is the most logical scenario for Mr. O’Brien as Fox has not been in the nightly late-night game since The Chevy Chase Show went belly up in 1993 after just 29 episodes and has been trying to get back since. A Fox spokesperson believed if they can get Conan O’Brien to his network, he could get at least 60 to 70 percent clearance rate – if the series go on at 11 or 11:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Mr. O’Brien’s show is very compatible with Fox’s target 18-49 demographic group.

But there are several stumbling blocks – one, many local Fox affiliates – and O&Os have local news at this time – and second, long-term syndicated programming commitments in late fringe. This was the same problem David Letterman faced he moved to CBS in 1993 – many CBS affiliates (including those in Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, St. Louis, and others) delayed his show a half-hour to honor those type of commitments.

One station (WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C.) delayed Letterman for an hour to 12:35 a.m. since the CBS affiliate ran The Arsenio Hall Show at 11:35 p.m., which dominated the ratings in its time slot. If the station moved Arsenio to 12:30 a.m.. it would had to pay a cash penalty to its syndicator (Paramount Domestic Television, which would ironically fold into CBS in 2006) for the privilege. When Hall’s show ended original production in May 1994, WUSA moved Letterman to 11:35 p.m.

Here in Chicago, Fox’s WFLD canceled its 10 p.m. newscast last September, and currently has a late fringe lineup of The Office, Simpsons, and repeats of TMZ and Wendy Williams from earlier in the day. New York’s WNYW has The Office, Simpsons, and two episodes of Seinfeld, while KTTV in Los Angeles airs Simpsons, The Office, and two episodes of King of the Hill.

While moving some of these programs to co-owned My Network TV stations in these three markets may make it easier to accommodate a new late-night talk show, it will be a lot harder to do so where a Fox affiliate does not have a duopoly with a CW or My Network TV affiliate or an independent station.

ABC and The CW. Forget about it. ABC officials are happy with their current late night lineup of Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel, while The CW is not interested, given its focus on the female 12-34 demographic.

First run-syndication. This too is a long shot, as many of the studios who are in the syndication business are also owners of the major networks, and therefore, do not want to compete with their late-night lineups. The two major syndicators not aligned with networks (Sony and Warner Bros.) are focusing more on launching first-run daytime programs and off-network sitcoms. Smaller syndicators most likely cannot afford Mr. O’Brien’s services.

Plus, many station groups whose stations are not aligned with Fox are hesitant to launch a late-night talk show, given the failures of such shows in the past – anyone remember Magic Johnson’s late-night gabber or Stephanie Miller’s? Not to mention giving up a lot of local spot inventory, despite the show being sold on on a barter basis. The broadcast station community passed up George Lopez’s new late night show for this very reason (it wound up on TBS.)

The last time – and the only time there was a successful launch of a late-night talk show in syndication was Arsenio, which ran from 1989 to 1994.

Cable. A more realistic possibility than syndication – but with so many cable channels out there, would a cable show work? FX has expressed some interest. Turner networks (notably TBS) may also bite. But thus far, the late-night cable fare- outside of the non-traditional Daily Show and Colbert Report has not really made a ratings dent while with BET’s The Monique Show and Lopez Tonight reportedly struggling.