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Monday, April 12, 2010

Score one for Team Coco, cable TV

Well, if you had TBS in the “Where Will Conan O’Brien End Up?” sweepstakes, congratulations. You win!

In a surprise move Monday, TBS announced Conan is coming on board for a new show at 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, beginning in November. George Lopez and his “Lopez Tonight” show get moved to midnight.

(I dare you to fake indignation at the thought of Conan returning to late night TV by bumping another host out of his slot – you know, like Jay Leno did to Conan in usurping the “Tonight Show” throne months ago. To draw a parallel between the two situations is ludicrous. Save yourself the embarrassment. And if you can't help yourself, check out this piece from The New York Times, which outlines how instrumental Lopez was in bringing Conan aboard.)

As recently as Monday morning, it sounded like Conan-to-Fox was a foregone conclusion. So how did we get here?

Quite simply, bringing Conan to Fox wasn’t going to be easy. Local affiliate stations make a boatload of money running syndicated programming, with 11 p.m. being among the most profitable time slots. For example, Cleveland’s Fox affiliate, WJW, runs two episodes of “Seinfeld” in the 11 p.m. hour. Putting a Conan show in that time slot would mean Fox telling its affiliates they had to dump a cash cow in favor of more network programming.

It was for that reason that I thought it made the most sense for a Conan-Fox partnership to end up with O’Brien on the cable channel FX. Turns out I was in the right neighborhood, but the wrong street.

Some think Conan faces an uphill battle trying to cultivate an audience on cable. Really? The lines between network TV and cable are getting more blurry by the day, and that genie isn’t going back in the bottle anytime soon.

Look at the sports television landscape. “Monday Night Football” is a flagship for ESPN now. One of Major League Baseball’s league championship series airs on TBS, the NBA’s conference finals air on ESPN and TNT, and the college football Bowl Championship Series is headed to ESPN this coming season. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, for some 20 years the exclusive property of CBS, seems to have a one-way ticket punched for ESPN next season.

How about non-sports programming? “The Closer.” “Burn Notice.” “Rescue Me.” “Sons of Anarchy.” All successful. All on cable. And the list goes on.

USA, TNT and FX have changed the TV landscape with their original series. TBS, which has been rebranded as the comedy-centric brother of TNT in the Turner family of networks, has carved out a niche. The point is: Cable isn’t the redheaded step-child of television anymore, and it’s archaic to think it is.

“Lopez Tonight,” for better or worse, has been part of that, and it has enjoyed moderate ratings success in the 11 p.m. time slot on TBS since its debut last November. If nothing else, “Lopez” showed a traditional late-night talk show could survive on cable, opening the door for O’Brien to come in. If a critically panned show like “Lopez” can stay afloat, shouldn’t the sky be the limit for an established late night fixture like Conan? (Sidebar: Don’t weep for Lopez. If anything, he should enjoy a bump from all this, getting a nice lead-in from the new Conan show, all while settling into the very comfy role of second banana on TBS.)

Conan is going to have a great opportunity on TBS. He won’t be under the “we want big results right now” pressure from a network and its antsy affiliates. Being on cable, he’ll be able to take some liberties he might not have been able to take on a network.

And, in what I think is the real hidden ace of this deal: He’s only going to be on four nights a week. Having fewer shows to produce means having fewer bad bits to fill airtime – in other words, “all killer, no filler.” Not to mention the fact that Friday is widely considered a terrible night for TV. Taking away that albatross can do nothing but help Conan’s ratings.

O’Brien has done very well to keep his name in the news since leaving the “Tonight Show.” Tickets are moving briskly for his live show tour, which was set to kick off Monday night in Eugene, Ore. He’s milked his newly established Twitter feed for all it’s worth. And here we are, writing about him again, despite the fact that he won’t show up on our TV sets until November.

With Monday’s announcement, you can score a big victory for Team Coco.

- Tom Valentino |


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April 13, 2010 at 8:01 AM 

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