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Conan O'Brien, seen here in 2009, is headed to TBS.
As of this morning, there were still updates about Conan O'Brien negotiating with Fox for a possible new late-night show, but then things took a turn: Conan's headed to TBS instead. O'Brien made light of the news on Twitter today, "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."
What he's actually going to do is occupy the 11:00 p.m. slot where TBS currently has George Lopez's Lopez Tonight. Lopez Tonight, in turn, will be moved to midnight. (Despite the time change, this is probably a blessing for Lopez, who stands to see the entire TBS late-night project get a lot of extra attention.)
Going to TBS solves a couple of problems for Conan. Reports had it that Fox affiliates were putting up a fight about having to eat the costs of the syndicated shows they already had lined up for the 11:00 slot (their Seinfeld reruns or what have you), as well as the costs to them of paying Fox to air the show. O'Brien just finished a bruising from affiliate politics, of course, since it was complaining affiliates that pushed Jay Leno's low-rated show out of the 10 p.m. slot at NBC, the chain reaction from which pushed O'Brien out of The Tonight Show. He may find it a relief, in light of that, to deal with a cable network where you don't have to argue with individual station owners about their willingness to carry your show. (It was apparently one of O'Brien's major concerns that he'd sign a deal with Fox, and then his show wouldn't air everywhere, making it seem hobbled before it even started.) Conan is also, according to The Hollywood Reporter's Live Feed, going to own this show, something he wanted badly and obviously wasn't going to get at NBC.
TBS doesn't currently have a towering reputation for original programming, it's true — it's no NBC, it's no Fox — it's not even TNT or FX yet. It's had some luck with Tyler Perry shows including Tyler Perry's House Of Payne, and the comedy My Boys is generally pretty well-regarded. But it's still, with regard to original shows, an upstart compared to the existing heavy hitters.
The thing is, for a lot of observers, the entire problem with Conan's Tonight Show is that he was never the right Tonight Show guy anyway. He's too weird. He couldn't find a path to that stodgy a brand, and it was too established to come to him. An upstart may be exactly the right place for him.
How it could work out for TBS as well, after the jump.
And it could work out for TBS, too. It's very important to keep in mind that the list of basic-cable networks that are and are not considered big-time — which ones are and are not respected or successful — can change very quickly with surprisingly little new programming. Think about what it did for Comedy Central that The Daily Show became what it is now. Or the effect on Bravo from Queer Eye For The Straight Guy and Project Runway, or TLC from Trading Spaces (hard to remember, that last one, but very true). Or look higher in brow: AMC wasn't an HBO competitor until Mad Men, and then, all of a sudden, it was. One or two shows can change a network's entire image.
The show Conan O'Brien winds up doing for TBS may not look anything like The Tonight Show. In doing it, he's certainly not going to be tasked with pleasing people whose previous host of choice was Jay Leno, with whom O'Brien has little in common with regard to sensibility. But it may look a lot more like him, and remember, he'll start a half-hour earlier than Leno and Letterman, because TBS doesn't have a half-hour of late local news to deal with.
Ultimately, it's a big gamble with both a lot of upside and a lot of downside. If you look at it one way, there's less pressure this way, because nobody will expect a TBS show to compete with Leno and Letterman out of the gate. But considered another way, there's even more pressure, because he's shouldering most of the weight of a serious attempt on the part of TBS to make much bigger inroads in late-night. (Which is nothing against Lopez, obviously, but his show only started last November, and he wasn't the kind of high-profile hire that O'Brien will be, coming directly from the most famous franchise in late-night television.)
Most importantly, if it goes well, a Conan TBS show may be another step in battering the networks by giving disgruntled talent more good options. Going directly from one network to another would have been one thing; going straight to basic cable could theoretically make Conan look weak, but it could also make NBC look much less powerful than it thought it was. Splintering audiences are nothing new, but if Conan O'Brien makes a go of a show at TBS after being shown the door at NBC, it could continue to weaken the hands of network negotiators, who are having to adjust to a world in which not just a particular network, but networks in general, are not the only game in town.