You snooze, you lose: Conan O’Brien is bringing his late-night act to Time Warner-owned cable network TBS, breaking off talks with Fox and making plans to move to cable in November.
O’Brien and Fox had been engaged in serious discussions about launching a late-night show for months, with most indications pointing to a deal eventually getting done. But Fox had always indicated that an agreement came with serious limitations: Less money, no guarantee of wide affiliate clearances and little chance for O’Brien to own his own show.
And while Fox Entertainment executives made no secret of their desire to get O’Brien, other parts of News Corp. seemed agnostic at best — consistently stressing that an agreement would have to make sense financially.
The comedy-focused TBS, by contrast, made it clear that it really, really wanted O’Brien — and was willing to step up with a monster deal to land him. His new pact with the network will allow O’Brien to own his own show, a la David Letterman, while also giving him an eight-figure compensation package described as "
bigger better than any other deal he’s ever had," one person familiar with the agreement said.
The news is being announced on the same day O’Brien opens a nationwide live comedy tour in Eugene, Oregon. It’s also the opening day of the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas — ironic, given the shift of a major broadcast brand to the wired world.
“In three months I’ve gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I’m headed to basic cable," O’Brien said. "My plan is working perfectly.”
O’Brien’s new show, based in Los Angeles, is expected to air original episodes four nights a week, one night less than when he was on NBC but in line with the production pattern for Lopez, Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel.
The deal with TBS the latest stunning development in what’s been a nearly four-month rollercoaster ride for the artist now known as Coco. There’d been talk about O’Brien shifting to cable, but most of the buzz had him considering a shift to Comedy Central or FX.
In part, that’s because TBS already has a late-night show, "Lopez Tonight," headlined by comic George Lopez. But Lopez called O’Brien last week to urge him to jump to TBS — even though it meant Lopez’s show would be bumped to midnight.
"Lopez Tonight" — which skews young but has been a modest ratings performer, after a strong start — has now been renewed for a second season. And virtually overnight, TBS has established a potentially powerful — and paradigm-shifting — late-night lineup.
“For decades, late-night TV has been dominated by broadcast television,” said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, calling O’Brien "the comedic voice for a generation" with a huge fan base. “Now, with a young audience and a growing late-night lineup, TBS is set to be the choice of comedy fans for years to come.”
And Turner could now own late-night viewers under 50: Its Cartoon Network is already tops in all of TV among adults 18-34 with "Adult Swim."
Lopez went out of his way to signal he was on board with being bumped.
"I can’t think of anything better than doing my show with Conan as my lead-in,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a new era in late-night comedy.”
News of the deal will no doubt come as setback for Fox’s entertainment team, led by Peter Rice and Kevin Reilly. Both men had let it be known that they really wanted to be in business with O’Brien, and their inability to get a deal done could be seen as a sign that the once-bold Fox is now feeling more cautious about making bold plays.
The counter-spin to that, of course, is that Fox simply wasn’t prepared to break the bank on a potentially risky move. Late-night ratings for all the broadcast networks are down, as is revenue. And numerous News Corp. insiders had been saying for weeks that an O’Brien deal would be a hard sell to affiliates, many of whom didn’t want to give up lucrative repeats to help Fox further build its brand.
In the coming hours and days, look for both sides to spin just what went wrong in the courtship.