Conan O’Brien and TBS shocked the TV world Monday (April 12) with the announcement that O’Brien would host a late-night show on cable starting in November.
It was a surprise, yes. But it’s also a deal that makes a lot of sense for everyone involved. O’Brien will almost surely get to do whatever kind of show he wants, with full network support. And he’ll do so without the ratings pressure — or his predecessor as a lead-in — that he had hanging over him at NBC.
O’Brien will be moving into an 11 p.m. timeslot where TBS’ current late-night host, George Lopez, has averaged 1.2 million viewers this season. O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” averaged 2.6 million people in the final three months of 2009 — weak numbers for the show historically but ratings that would make him a big success in the cable landscape. (“The Daily Show,” which O’Brien will be competing against come fall, averages a little over 1.7 million viewers.)
As part of the TBS deal, O’Brien will also have an ownership stake in his new show. Over the course of his five-year contract, a successful show would mean O’Brien could make a good chunk of change beyond whatever TBS pays him (a reported $10 million per year).
TBS draws its biggest prime-time audiences with a pair of shows created by Tyler Perry: “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns.” There may not be a ton of crossover between the fans of Perry’s broad family comedy and those who like O’Brien’s off-center, hipster image, but the channel’s other prime-time fare — primarily reruns of “The Office” and “Family Guy” — do feel like a good fit for Team Coco. TBS drew 1.7 million viewers a night in primetime for the first quarter of this year.
O’Brien also instantly becomes the biggest star on TBS (and is being welcomed with open arms by Lopez, who gave the thumbs-up to bringing O’Brien on board and moving his show to midnight) and will undoubtedly get a huge promotional push in the weeks leading up to his show’s debut.
The TBS announcement also comes on the day that O’Brien begins his “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour” in Eugene, Ore. He’ll be on the road with the live show for the next two months, giving him a chance to get the word about his new job out to thousands of fans. And we’d bet good money that as soon as his exit deal from NBC expires in September and he’s allowed to appear on television again, O’Brien will be a guest on “Lopez Tonight.”
(And as for the place O’Brien didn’t go: A number of FOX affiliates were unthrilled, to say the least, at giving up the late-night real estate where they now run money-making syndicated programming for a show where the network would get most of the ad money. FOX may not be a late-night player anytime soon, but keeping affiliates happy is no small thing.)
As for the type of show O’Brien puts on, we can probably expect that TBS will give him pretty much free rein. Critics and fans of O’Brien complained that during his “Tonight Show” stint, O’Brien seemed to be holding back on the lunacy that often characterized “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” That shouldn’t be an issue in his new home.
Photo credit: Getty Images