FOX is set to move fast to pick up Conan O'Brien for a rival late-night show, according to sources.
Talks between O'Brien and Fox could start as early as this week.
"Chances like this don't come around very often," says the source with knowledge of the situation.
"If Fox wants to be in late night, now's the time."
That Fox is interested in Conan is no secret.
"He's one of the few guys on the planet who has demonstrated he can do one of these shows every night," Peter Reilly, Fox's entertainment president, said last week.
What is new is word that Fox wants to complete a deal with Conan quickly.
Fox has long wanted to create a late-night show — and a morning show — to compete with NBC, ABC and CBS.
"Today" and "Tonight," for instance, are cash cows for NBC — bring in around $800 million a year in revenues.
But starting flagship shows like those has been next to impossible.
"The Chevy Chase Show," Fox's last attempt to crack late night, was canceled in 1993 after just four weeks.
Joan Rivers lasted less than a year on Fox late night in 1986-87.
But more things are in Fox's favor now than in the past, sources explained.
O'Brien's young appeal is a better fit at Fox than at NBC, which was used to the larger-but-older audience that Jay Leno had been getting at 11:30.
Fox is the top-ranked network now — it was No. 4 then — thanks to shows like "American Idol," and it has the clout to promote Conan better.
And, most attractive of all, Conan's salary will be paid in large part by NBC — thanks to the $32.5-million settlement he received last week to get out of his "Tonight" show contract.
Indications are that Fox execs began quizzing local affiliates last week to see if time at 11 p.m. — now reserved mostly for reruns of comedies — can be cleared.
"If they don't jump now, they'll have to wait another five years for another opportunity like this to come along," says the source.
Offers from cable TV channels and TV syndication are also expected to come in this week, sources close to Conan said.
At the center of talks with Fox will be whether Conan, like David Letterman, will be allowed to own his show — or split ownership with Fox.
"One things for sure," says a Conan source. "He won't do anything that is not a high-quality show."
Translation: Any new show will be expecting a "Tonight" show-type budget.
A spokesman for Fox could not be reached yesterday.