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Conan gets last laugh

The ousted 'Tonight Show' host returns to late night in the fall, this time on cable.

April 13, 2010|Joe Flint and Maria Elena Fernandez

First Oprah, now Conan.

In the latest sign that the field has leveled between broadcast and cable television, former "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien has decided to make his late-night comeback this fall on TBS, a cable network that has largely been synonymous with old network reruns and Atlanta Braves baseball. "This is the day the last brick wall fell down between broadcast and cable," declared Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks.

O'Brien, dumped by NBC as host of "The Tonight Show" in favor of his predecessor, Jay Leno, just four months ago, will return in November on TBS with an 11 p.m. show. Comedian George Lopez, who just launched his own late-night show in that same time slot on TBS last year, has agreed to move to midnight.

In sardonic fashion, O'Brien had his own spin on the news.

"In three months I've gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I'm headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly," he quipped in a statement.

For TBS, one of the country's oldest cable channels, snaring O'Brien is a culmination of a decade-long effort to transform a network that launched 30 years ago with "The Andy Griffith Show" reruns into a cutting-edge channel on par with Comedy Central, USA, FX and TNT.

"This is a seminal moment for TBS," Koonin said. Although TBS, which doesn't produce a lot of original shows, may seem like an odd fit for O'Brien, the cable channel's evening lineup includes reruns of "The Office" and "Family Guy" that play to O'Brien's core audience of young adults.

O'Brien's move to TBS is a big blow to Fox, which had been actively wooing the comedian and was seen as the odds-on favorite to land him.

While Fox was enthusiastic about getting back into the late-night game with O'Brien, that sentiment was not echoed by its affiliates. Most Fox stations carry reruns of comedies in late night and would have taken a financial hit if they had to replace those shows with O'Brien. Complicating the situation for Fox is that O'Brien would have aired in varying time periods among affiliates around the country for at least a year, undercutting ratings and advertising.

TBS initially indicated it had little interest in pursuing O'Brien when he and his representatives began casting about for a new home earlier this year. For starters, the network appeared committed to Lopez at 11 p.m., and Koonin assumed Fox had a lock on O'Brien.

But when no deal with Fox emerged, Koonin sprung into action, reaching out to the comedian's camp only a little more than a week ago. Although there was interest, O'Brien also made it clear that he didn't want to take away Lopez's show by having Lopez suffer the same ironic fate that befell O'Brien at NBC, where the network bumped him aside for Leno.

Koonin then talked with Lopez, who then called O'Brien to tell him he was on board with the plan. After that was all done, it took only about 72 hours to get a deal in place. (Indeed, with O'Brien as a lead-in, it may help Lopez in the ratings.)

Now O'Brien becomes the latest star to abandon broadcast for cable. Late last year, Oprah Winfrey announced she was leaving daytime television to focus full time on OWN, the cable network she is launching in partnership with Discovery Communications.

That TBS landed a major player in late night, traditionally the turf of the broadcast networks, "says that anybody can be a player," said Brent Poer, managing director of the Los Angeles offices of MediaVest, a media buying firm whose clients include Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble. "It's not about cable versus broadcast. I don't think consumers think that way. It's about good programming versus bad programming."

O'Brien's audience on cable will probably be smaller than it was on NBC or would have been if he went to Fox. He will face off against Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, who attracts almost 2 million viewers each night, and Stephen Colbert, who draws about 1.4 million people. Lopez has been averaging just over a million viewers in that hour.

Even though O'Brien was pulling in more than $12 million annually from NBC, he stands to earn even more on cable. That's because O'Brien will own his show, similar to the way Johnny Carson did with his "Tonight Show" but which would have been tougher for him to get on broadcast television.

TBS, meanwhile, will be able to charge the cable systems that carry its channel higher fees if O'Brien delivers solid ratings, generating greater revenue for the network.

For O'Brien, the deal with TBS is the latest chapter in a saga that has seen more twists than a "Law & Order" plot.

First O'Brien was given NBC's "Tonight Show," only to have NBC decide it couldn't part with Jay Leno, who was given his own 10 p.m. show. Then when Leno's prime-time gambit tanked, the network decided to move him back to late night, in part because O'Brien's viewership was weak and in part because NBC didn't want Leno bolting to a rival network.

O'Brien refused to be relegated to second-string status again and delivered an ultimatum to the network that he would quit if his show was pushed to midnight. NBC didn't balk and chose to return Leno to his old slot. O'Brien walked away from the program in January.

But something bigger seemed in the offing for O'Brien.

As his hosting duties for NBC drew to a close, his audience grew and fans galvanized around the country in rallies and online campaigns in support. A month after he left the airwaves, O'Brien resurfaced on Twitter where, he declared in his bio, "I had a show. Then I had a different show. Now I have a Twitter account."

Might be time to update his bio again.

Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this article from New York.

joe.flint@latimes.com, maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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