(CNN) — Of all the theories floating around as to where Conan O’Brien was going to end up post-NBC — on Fox, on Comedy Central or skipping television and doing something different altogether — no one was placing bets that he would end up on TBS.
When Turner Broadcasting — which owns TBS, along with CNN — released a statement Monday heralding the deal between the cable channel and the former “Tonight Show” host, many in the industry were caught off guard. But some see a method to O’Brien’s unconventional decision.
“Conan’s going to a network that caters to comedy,” Mediaweek TV analyst Marc Berman said. And for TBS, “it’s going to give them a stronger following and solidify their brand; they’re already doing well with syndication.”
The rumored Fox deal, on the other hand, “was always vague,” said TVGuide.com’s Mickey O’Connor. “It was clear that Fox wanted to try something, but they’ve also been very successful with syndicated programming in that time slot, as opposed to a talk show.”
TBS was also quite persuasive with its pitch, saying in a statement that comedian George Lopez made a personal call to O’Brien to sell him on the idea and assure the former NBC host that he was on board with it. As a result, beginning in November, O’Brien will man an hourlong late-night talk show Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m., leading into another hour of talk with George Lopez on “Lopez Tonight.”
“The stuff that George Lopez is doing on his show is really good — he’s getting an audience that perhaps felt underserved,” O’Connor said. “I think Conan could be a good complement to that. Celebrities are really embracing Lopez’s show, and I can only imagine that will be the same on Conan’s show.”
Another incentive for O’Brien may have been the chance to get out of the network ratings race. Conversation about his show won’t be dominated by the context of how he’s doing in comparison with Jay Leno and David Letterman because “the demand for ratings won’t be as high on TBS,” O’Connor said, “which will take some of the pressure off O’Brien.”
This doesn’t mean that he’ll be competition-free, however. His new show will target a similar demographic as it goes up against Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, two of cable’s late-night comedy mainstays.
“That makes it even tougher for him,” said Frank Nicotero, host of Yahoo! TV’s “Prime Time in No Time” Web series. “O’Brien has always tried to go for the highbrow comedy, and nobody does it better than Stewart and Colbert. I wouldn’t be surprised if his first half-hour is skewed, with the A celebrity coming in at 11:30.”
According to Nicotero, O’Brien may have been better off trying to work something out with Fox, because TBS just doesn’t have the primetime viewership that Fox has — if it looks anything like it does now, O’Brien will have “Family Guy” and “The Office” reruns as the warm-up for his time slot.
This isn’t wholly a bad thing — it’s the kind of programming that fits with O’Brien’s style. On the one hand, “he’ll fit in very well with the audience,” Berman said, “because TBS skews young and they’re male-driven.”
But on the other hand, without the primetime support he could’ve gotten at Fox, Nicotero said, they not only can’t expect huge numbers, but they also can’t rely on a “room to grow” philosophy when it comes to ratings.
“This show has to hit the ground running,” Nicotero said. “They won’t have any time to grow; he’ll have to come out strong. TBS will be looking at the match-up against Jon Stewart.”
Mediaweek’s Berman agreed that “Comedy Central’s not going to fall off the map — they’re not new at this, and they have a strong following.”
Ideally, this would prove that more than one hit talk show can exist at that hour, Berman said, including those on late night networks — one or two of the hosts will be DVR’d, while a third is watched in real time, perhaps.
O’Brien’s move also highlights a shift away from the distinction between being on cable and being on a network, O’Connor said.
“As network audiences are going down, cable audiences are going up, and there will be a logical point when those two will meet and that distinction won’t matter anymore,” he said. “Look at something like the evening news: It’s not something that cable networks can contend with, but it’s a challenge for the networks.”
When it comes to PR, the move is good on all sides to TBS — it will undoubtedly raise its profile, Berman said. But O’Brien’s brand may have taken a dent, said Michael Levine, a media expert and owner of public relations firm Levine Communications Office.
“You were at ‘The Tonight Show,’ and now you’re on TBS,” Levine said, querying how many people can remember the last time they watched something on TBS, or even knew what channel it was on.
“This is a negative move for his career. You can say that it’s less pressure, it’s cool, they give a foot massage to the guests — nothing wrong with that, but it’s an unparalleled fall from grace for a man who was the host of ‘The Tonight Show.’ ”
But, O’Connor added, if O’Brien didn’t think the TBS deal wasn’t going to yield a show that matched what he’s done in the past, he wouldn’t do it.
“He’s someone who values a larger well-paid writing staff, and if he wasn’t able to do that with TBS, he wouldn’t be doing the show,” O’Connor said. “He’s not on a network anymore, and the audience will be smaller, but if anyone can take a nontraditional path to late-night success, it’s him.”