When it was announced that Conan O’Brien signed a deal for a late-night program on TBS, industry insiders expressed fantastic surprise. But the shock that O’Brien would land at a cable network and not at say, Fox, is quickly wearing off: In this case, it looks like Team Coco and TBS are actually both winners, and O’Brien is set up for success.
One sign that O’Brien stands to be happy at his new home is that he’s actually really, really wanted at TBS. Fox executives Kevin Reilly and Peter Rice had long expressed interest in O’Brien (and O’Brien and Reilly are friends), but at News Corp., which owns Fox, the reception was chillier.
“If the programming people can show us that we could do it, and ... make a profit on it, we’d do it in a flash,” Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., told investors on Feb. 2. “We’re giving it a lot of thought and a lot of examination.”
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Translation: We want O’Brien, but only if he comes at a bargain. And a bargain-basement offer is just what O’Brien was getting from Fox, according to two different sources familiar with the negotiations.
One source said that Fox, “and especially the affiliates,” were “more than happy with the performance of reruns at the 11 o’clock hour,” and didn’t want to invest money on O’Brien, which would be considered a risk at this point.
Another source said that because of the current success of programming at 11, Fox was in no way prepared to offer O’Brien a salary that was even “in the ballpark of his NBC” salary. “He was basically being lowballed, but not out of anything malicious. There was just a cap at what they would pay,” said the source. “Conan needed Fox more than Fox needed Conan. It had to make financial sense (for Fox).”
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And then there’s TBS. As far as what they’re offering O’Brien, the most important part might not be the money, but the fact there’s so much acceptance attached to the deal. (OK, we know the money is important, but we’ll get to that). For starters, George Lopez, whose “Lopez Tonight” is currently in the timeslot that O’Brien will soon call home, told O’Brien personally that he supported O’Brien and would move his own show to midnight.
Gavin Palone, O’Brien’s manager, told Kim Masters at The Daily Beast that “Conan would never get involved or consider a situation where he was pushing somebody out,” and that Lopez told O’Brien, “I really want you here. You and I are the team. I want to move to midnight.”
So it’s good to be wanted, but it’s better when the deal at hand makes you happy, too. As far as O’Brien’s deal is concerned, the only salary range that’s being offered up is that of the “seven-figure” variety. Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, which owns TBS, declined to comment on specifics, but said it was a “significant investment.”
It seems unlikely, according to a number of insiders, that O’Brien could pull the $12.5 million salary he was said to be getting for “The Tonight Show,” but regardless, he wins out at TBS because he gets ownership of his show, a la David Letterman.
Where TBS is concerned, they might be shelling out some serious coin, but they’re taking a smart risk: The TBS demographic is younger than Fox’s and is ready-made to accept O’Brien. And Turner as a whole is in a good place to tee up its newest member of the family, as it has a strong comedy platform in place already.
“Lopez Tonight” has a growing audience. The company has spent years fostering a late-night audience with Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim,” which draws big numbers among the younger 18 to 34 demo. Theoretically, O’Brien and his particular brand of humor should fit right in.
As of this writing, there’s a sheen of too-good-to-be-trueness wrapped around the deal. This time next year, it’s entirely possible that that the columns on the one-year anniversary of this deal announcement will be spun to explain why TBS was never the right place for O’Brien, and why he was a risk for a cable network.
But in the meantime, this seems like one of those rare, win-win situations. Actually, win-win-win, as talent, network and fans stand to benefit from the TBS/Coco pairing.
“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 Monday. "My plan is working perfectly.”
Yeah, it kind of is.