Conan O'Brien heads to TBS, not Fox

Yes, that basic cable channel. How will the betrayed "Tonight Show" host get back at NBC?

Published April 13, 2010 5:20PM (EDT)

FILE - This Nov. 7, 2007 file photo shows Conan O'Brien in New York.  (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, file) (AP)
FILE - This Nov. 7, 2007 file photo shows Conan O'Brien in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, file) (AP)

As Conan O'Brien sought a new place to play TV host, conventional wisdom said he'd be bringing his talk show to Fox.

But then O'Brien, lately a host without a network, surprised everyone Monday by announcing he'd chosen cable channel TBS as his new home.

His decision to become a cable guy happened fast, met with an "overwhelming" level of desire and enthusiasm from the top of the company on down, said Gavin Polone, O'Brien's manager.

"They didn't let anything get in their way," Polone said, calling it the "swiftest complex deal" he's made in 23 years in business.

"There were other opportunities where Conan would have made more money, but for Conan it was never about the money," he said.

Expected to debut in November, the as-yet-untitled show will return O'Brien to the air after an absence that began in January with his unpleasant exit from NBC, his employer for 17 years.

O'Brien's new program will air Mondays through Thursdays at 11 p.m. Eastern, which will shift "Lopez Tonight," starring George Lopez, to midnight.

When TBS approached them about bringing O'Brien to the network, Polone said he and Rick Rosen, O'Brien's agent, responded that a deal couldn't happen because Lopez had the 11 p.m. slot.

"They said, 'George will embrace this.' We said, 'Yeah, sure.' And they proved us wrong," Polone said.

O'Brien's show will originate from Los Angeles, where he moved from New York for his short-lived stint hosting "The Tonight Show." For the second half of each hour, he will face off against Jay Leno, who in March repossessed the "Tonight" host chair.

O'Brien's five-year TBS contract gives him ownership of the show, according to a person familiar with the deal who spoke on condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to publicly discuss it.

Once TBS made it official on Monday, O'Brien quickly fired out a celebratory tweet.

"The good news: I will be doing a show on TBS starting in November! The bad news: I'll be playing Rudy on the all new Cosby Show," he joked with his Twitter post.

"I can't think of anything better than doing my show with Conan as my lead-in. It's the beginning of a new era in late-night comedy," Lopez said in a statement released by TBS.

Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, said he flew from Atlanta to Lopez's office on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles last Wednesday to enlist the comedian's help.

Koonin pitched Lopez on the idea that both he and O'Brien are in their 40s (O'Brien turns 47 on Sunday) and appeal to a young demographic, while Leno and David Letterman are older and attract an older crowd.

"He got very excited," Koonin said. "George saw the vision."

Lopez picked up the phone to speak with O'Brien immediately. With his own show just months old (it began in November), Lopez agreed to have "Lopez Tonight" air an hour later.

By week's end, a deal was struck.

"Hopefully, this will be something that lasts for the next decade," said Koonin. He declined to reveal the show's anticipated budget, but said, "They told us what they needed to make the show, and we said, 'Let's go make the show.'"

Koonin expressed optimism that O'Brien will have more creative freedom on cable, saying "cable has historically had a different temperament than broadcast," but noted, "Conan's not a dirty comedian. That's not what he does."

O'Brien's bitter break with NBC took place after he had hosted "The Tonight Show" for just eight months. Having followed Leno with "Late Night" since 1993, O'Brien was guaranteed a promotion to the "Tonight Show" last summer in a succession plan announced back in 2004.

To keep Leno in the fold, NBC sold him on a prime-time weeknight hour last fall. It was an instant flop.

With O'Brien's ratings flagging, NBC angled to reinstate Leno at 11:35 p.m. Eastern in a half-hour format, pushing O'Brien to a post-midnight berth. O'Brien refused, instead walking away with a $32 million settlement package.

Although that put him in play to host a show for another network, the exit deal barred him from appearing on TV until September. And within the industry as well as among viewers, his split with NBC sparked a new guessing game: Where Will Conan Go?

Monday's surprise announcement broke only hours before O'Brien began a two-month, nationwide comedy tour in Eugene, Ore., aptly titled "The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour."

The news laid to rest persistent buzz that he was likely to score a show on the Fox network.

He did rate with the appreciative Eugene audience, which gave him a standing ovation. Joining him on the 30-city tour are sidekick Andy Richter, members of the former "Tonight" band and celebrity guests.

The evening included familiar O'Brien bits from his NBC years, including Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, although the comedian warned that "lawyers are watching."

Fox told O'Brien's representatives last week that the network would not be making a deal with him, said an executive with knowledge of the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to publicly discuss negotiations.

The network realized it would not be able to clear airtime for O'Brien in a manner that made sense. Most affiliates have contracts for syndicated shows airing in late-night hours that expire at different times. The idea of an O'Brien show premiering on the network in a staggered pattern over a two-year period seemed impractical, the executive said.

Even so, Fox management had pushed to make it happen, realizing O'Brien represented perhaps their best opportunity to launch a late-night talk show, given his popularity with the type of young audience Fox seeks.

A person familiar with the negotiations said the talks with Fox hadn't closed when the TBS deal was announced, and a meeting was on the calendar with Peter Rice, Fox chairman of entertainment. The person, who was not authorized to talk publicly about the matter, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some of the affiliates had also questioned whether a network talk show would prove as lucrative for them as selling their own commercial time for shows they air themselves.

Barring Fox, O'Brien's most likely option was widely thought to be his own show syndicated to individual stations.

All the while, few if any handicappers recognized TBS as a plausible destination.

But adding O'Brien to its lineup seemed to make sense for TBS, which has come a long way since it started out as a local Atlanta UHF station that grew into the satellite-distributed SuperStation seen nationwide, then became the foundation for Ted Turner's media empire.

Now available in 100.4 million of the nation's 114.9 million TV homes, TBS in recent years has successfully branded itself as the place for comedy with its slogan, "Very Funny."

Conan's show is "an extension of that strategy," said Christopher Marangi, a media company analyst for Gabelli & Co.

"Conan has a fan base and probably a good number of fans will follow him to TBS," he said.

But the second half of O'Brien's show could meet tough talk-show competition from broadcast networks: CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" and, of course, NBC's "Tonight Show."

On cable, he'll square off against Comedy Central, whose pair of marquee half-hours -- "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report With Stephen Colbert" -- begins at 11 p.m. Eastern.

O'Brien's move to cable from broadcast caught most people off-guard and struck some observers as a big-time network star deciding to downsize. But at least one entertainment magnate insisted this is the new order of things.

Ben Silverman, the former NBC entertainment chief, said O'Brien's move to cable from a broadcast network further blurred distinctions about where people watch their shows.

"I think what it means is everything is open for discussion," he said. "I wouldn't have been surprised if we were talking about it being on YouTube. I think the walls are breaking down."


TBS is owned by Time Warner Inc.


Television Writer Lynn Elber in Eugene, Ore., AP Business Writer Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles, and Television Writer David Bauder and Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle in New York contributed to this report.


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