Surprising news broke today that Conan O’Brien’s show will be moving to cable’s TBS. A lot of people, including myself, were shocked by this, especially since news broke late last week that negotiations with Fox and Conan were moving along smoothly and that his tour would be Conan’s way of wooing the affiliates in the major markets. I thought that Fox would for sure be the new home for O’Brien for sure. One reason why this is so surprising is because Conan is going from the premiere late night gig to basic cable. Many people see this as a step down. It might be, but here is why I think it is a better move for Conan than a move to Fox would be.
Many Fox affiliates around the country air shows like The Office and The Simpson in syndication during the time slot that Conan was going after, 11PM EST. Those syndicated shows bring in a lot of revenue for the local affiliates, so they are obviously reluctant to put Conan on, especially when many see his stint on The Tonight Show as a failure. Now, we can argue on whether or not he really was a failure or if that blame should be handed to NBC, but that’s not what this article is about. Even if the affiliates did decide to air Conan’s show there might not be a guarantee that it would air at 11PM. Affiliates will always do what generates them more money. My local CBS affiliate does not air Craig Ferguson’s late night show right after Letterman. Access Hollywood or some other celebrity gossip show airs, pushing back Ferguson’s show by half an hour. I could see many Fox affiliates doing the same thing. Remember, it was the complaining by affiliates about the awful Jay Leno show that made NBC cancel it.
You also have to look at the fact that virtually every home in America now has TBS. There is less of a distinction between network television and basic cable these days. In fact, basic cable is, in my opinion, creating some of the best shows on television. I read somewhere recently, and unfortunately can’t find it now, that only about 60% of Fox affiliates were willing to air the Conan show at 11pm. Conan really would be reaching more possible viewers with his TBS deal. I also think a deal with a basic cable station will relieve some of the pressure to perform well. Cable seems to give shows more creative freedom and longer grace periods in order to grow. Let’s not forget that, according to TBS, the average age of its viewers is 33. That’s a lot lower than the major networks (in fact Leno’s average viewer age went above Letterman’s 54 to 56 since Leno retook the reigns). That will definitely appeal to advertisers looking to capture the younger market.
After hearing about the move I was definitely shocked and thought it was kind of a mistake. The more I think about it the more it makes sense for Conan. I think we all need to stop thinking about television the way we always have. Television is changing just as quick as all other forms of media. I think Conan’s move will be the next big move to take viewers further away from “traditional” television. I just hope TBS capitalizes on it.
EDIT: I also think that the whole situation with NBC has damaged the Tonight Show brand so going from The Tonight Show to cable isn’t really that big of a step. The Tonight Show was once iconic, but with the two fiascos, both involving NBC and Jay Leno, it isn’t what it used to be.