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NBC Nixes Conan ‘Give Back’ With ‘Idol’

Conan O’Brien’s presumed debut on Fox will have to wait until the fall after all, following NBC’s refusal to allow the late-night host to appear on Fox’s Idol Gives Back.

Executives at Idol producer Fremantle Media approached NBC, seeking permission to have O’Brien appear on Idol’s April 21 annual charity broadcast, according to multiple sources. The entreaty was rejected by NBC, which negotiated a $32 million separation agreement with O’Brien that keeps him off television until Sept. 1. NBC would not comment.

And this fall is when O’Brien is expected to join Fox full time, according to sources with knowledge of network and affiliate plans. The network hopes to make the announcement with O’Brien at its May 17 upfront presentation in New York. Fox declined comment.

O’Brien is also prohibited from saying anything that a “reasonable person” would find disparaging of NBC until Sept. 1. But he could appear onstage at the Fox upfront.

On April 12, O’Brien will hit the road for his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour.” There is no tour date on his schedule on May 17, the day of the Fox upfront presentation. He’s scheduled to be in Kansas City on May 16 and Minneapolis on May 18.

O’Brien’s representatives have also been shopping for studio space and are said to be keen on his old Tonight Show studio on the Universal lot, which cost $50 million to build and is only useful for variety programs with a studio audience. But NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker has not yet decided whether he will rent the space to O’Brien, who reveled in sticking it to NBCU executives during his final weeks on The Tonight Show.

Fox has not cleared an O’Brien program with affi liates, and many of them have been lukewarm to the idea since they have lucrative syndicated fare or local news in place in late night. The Fox affiliate board is scheduled to meet on April 13 in Las Vegas.

Some affiliate group heads say they would keep syndicated sitcoms in place at 11 p.m. and push O’Brien to midnight. (Ironically, it was NBC’s proposal to push The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien to 12:05 a.m. that prompted him to bolt the network.)

Numerous affiliates say they have not been approached by Fox about its plans for O’Brien. “We haven’t heard a thing from the network,” says a general manager at a leading Fox affiliate. “All we know is what we read in the trades.”

While O’Brien to Fox was considered inevitable by many, that didn’t stop multiple suitors from making proposals, including syndicators CBS and Debmar-Mercury.

Fox has tried numerous times to mount a late-night franchise, where even moderate success can yield many millions in ad dollars, despite the daypart showing some vulnerability in recent years.

CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman brought in $271 million in ad revenue for 2009, according to data compiled by Advertising Age. The Tonight Show reaped $175.6 million, and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live took in $138.1 million.

For Fox, a successful, long-running late-night franchise would be the final piece in its programming oeuvre, and could raise the top-rated network’s leverage during upcoming retransmission consent negotiations.