LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fox television executives said on Monday they were waiting for late night talk show host Conan O'Brien to determine his own fate with rival NBC before talking to him directly about a possible move to Fox.
Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly told TV reporters the network has had informal talks with representatives for O'Brien in recent days, but for now its hands were tied when it came to formal discussions with "The Tonight Show" host.
"I love Conan personally and professionally. But right now, he has to make a decision," Reilly said.
Reilly's comments follow NBC's embarrassing retreat from its five-month-old cost-cutting experiment that moved comedian Jay Leno from hosting "The Tonight Show" at 11:35 p.m. to the prime time 10 p.m. hour where he hosted a new talk program, "The Jay Leno Show."
The move proved to be a bad one for General Electric Co's NBC, and on Sunday the network said it wants to return Leno to 11:35 p.m., where his program reigned at No. 1 for years, and push O'Brien to a later start just after midnight
The network blamed pressure from its local affiliates who had seen a 30 percent drop in audiences for their 11 p.m. news shows because of the poor ratings from Leno's lead-in.
O'Brien, who moved his family from New York to Los Angeles less than a year ago to take up the coveted "Tonight Show" job, is reported to be unhappy at the proposed change but he remains under contract with NBC.
NBC, struggling in last place among the four leading U.S. networks, said on Sunday it is still in discussions with Leno, O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon, host of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," about the proposed late changes.
Reilly said Fox has had "some informal conversations" with O'Brien's representatives "but beyond that we are not free to talk about any other business proposition."
News Corp's Fox does not have a late night talk show, but Reilly said it is "always looking at our late night agenda." He conceded that any change to Fox's late night lineup would mean "very sensitive business discussions" with the network's own local affiliates before reaching any decisions.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Vicki Allen