Conan O'Brien heading to TBS
Everybody knew Conan O'Brien was returning to late-night.
Nobody guessed he would land at TBS, a basic cable network best known for comedy repeats that already has a late-night talk show.
But by the time the full story unfolded Monday of how O'Brien went from having serious talks with Fox, the top-rated broadcast network, to finding a home at the Turner-owned network, his move seemed to make perfect sense -- and said plenty about the state of the TV industry.
The simplest way of looking at O'Brien's decision is that TBS was able to make the more competitive offer, despite -- and because of -- its size.
At TBS, O'Brien will own his as-yet-untitled show and draw a salary comparable to what he earned at NBC (at least $10 million a year), plus pull down syndication earnings by selling the show overseas. At Fox, the network was looking to keep the show a relative bargain and preferred to hire O'Brien as an employee, like he was at NBC.
TBS also can offer greater job security as the bar for ratings success will be considerably lower than on Fox, where many a comedian has tried and failed to establish a late-night foothold.
Primarily, Fox was hampered by the very foundation of the broadcast business model: that major networks need to please their affiliates. It is the same problem that effectively led to O'Brien leaving NBC after stations revolted over the low-rated "The Jay Leno Show" airing at 10 p.m., and Leno was shifted back to O'Brien's time period.
Not wanting to fall into the same trap as Leno, O'Brien wouldn't sign with Fox without an assurance that the network could launch his show in a high percentage of the country. But with many stations having already committed time to various repeats, Fox couldn't clear O'Brien's hurdle.
"There were very positive talks with Fox, but there are commitments at the stations for the next two years that made it very difficult to put the show in enough markets to make it competitive," one insider said.
TBS initially was slow to enter the game; the cabler did extensive research to gauge how O'Brien could benefit the brand. But once the network decided to go after O'Brien, it moved quickly.
"We were able to pull this off in less than 70 hours," TBS president Steve Koonin said. "We felt we were the right match."
The aggressive courtship began about 10 days ago and faced a major stumbling block right away because the network's freshman late-night show "Lopez Tonight," hosted by George Lopez, already airs at 11 p.m.
O'Brien initially was disinterested at the prospect of bumping Lopez, which was too reflective of the NBC drama between himself and Leno. But O'Brien's stance shifted after Lopez called last week to personally ask O'Brien to join the network, offering to shift his show to midnight.
"I can't think of anything better than doing my show with Conan as my lead-in," Lopez said. "It's the beginning of a new era in late-night comedy."
O'Brien's team also was impressed that TBS would have repeats of "The Office" and "Family Guy" serving as a lead-in, shows with a similar demographic to O'Brien's audience. TBS further pledged to use Time Warner's family of properties to help bolster the show, like Cartoon Network's hipster-skewing Adult Swim. The network pledged a massive media campaign to promote the show (a promise it wasted no time fulfilling, airing O'Brien teasers Monday night).
Koonin called the deal "transformative" for TBS.
"We have been competing with broadcast for several years, and one of their last strengths has been morning and late-night programming," he said. "Now we have a chance with two guys in their 40s to attract viewers in their 20s and 30s."
Having O'Brien will help shift the perception of the network as a destination for original programming and give the network a younger image.
The move also means that O'Brien won't face direct ratings comparisons to Leno and David Letterman, though it does put him against the satiric sensibilities of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report."
"In three months, I've gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I'm headed to basic cable," O'Brien said in a statement. "My plan is working perfectly."
The show will have a strong Web component to capitalize on O'Brien's rabid online fan base. There will be original content from his comedy tour online and likely original, online-only clips helping tease his debut.
Although O'Brien joked that moving to basic cable was a step down from broadcast, Koonin cited the deal as proof of cable's growing importance.
"For decades, late-night TV has been dominated by broadcast television," he said. "Now, with a young audience and a growing late-night lineup, TBS is set to be the choice of comedy fans for years to come."
The announcement comes the same day O'Brien launches a two-month comedy tour.
Jeff Ross, O'Brien's longtime executive producer, also is on board at TBS.
"Conan is a great talent, and we wish him every success," a Fox representative said.
Matthew Belloni contributed to this report.
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