The internets lit up as soon as the announcement hit (which, oddly enough, happened on Dave Letterman’s birthday): Conan O’Brien is headed to TBS as soon as his contractually obligated silence is up. The basic cable station won out over Fox, which was the place O’Brien was widely rumored to head since it was first announced that NBC was bumping him out of the 11:30 time slot. That led to some head scratching, though it makes a lot of sense for three big reasons:
1. Turner properties offer valuable opportunities for cross-promotion. O’Brien was always positioned as the host with the younger audience, and Turner is well positioned to reach that audience. Not only does TBS airs three hours of Family Guy on Monday nights (leading right into the time slot O’Brien will occupy), but Turner’s cable properties have been at the forefront of providing television-quality online video – first with the now-defunct website SuperDeluxe and now on both TBS.com and AdultSwim.com.
The real underrated asset in this deal isn’t online though – it’s the cross-promotional opportunity with Cartoon Network, whose Adult Swim shares some of the same audience as O’Brien. While it would appear that sets up a tough intra-company competition, that isn’t exactly the case because of the second reason TBS and O’Brien are a great fit.
2. TBS offers time slot flexibility no other network will. This isn’t just about getting a half-hour jump on Jay Leno and Dave Letterman; Fox could offer the 11:00 p.m. time slot, too. But after the 11:00 showing of O’Brien’s show, and the 12:00 airing of George Lopez’s program, TBS will have the 1:00 p.m. time slot to fill.
What’s going on at 1:00 a.m.? Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night show and Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show have moved from comedy bits into guests. Comedy Central is replaying their 11:00-midnight programming (The Daily Show and the Colbert Report). Adult Swim is getting into its final hour, which features shorter cartoons that aren’t as popular as Family Guy and Robot Chicken – and, let’s be honest, really target the stoner market (have you ever tried to make sense of 12 oz. Mouse?). And remember those hypothetical college kids who media analysts claimed stayed out too late to catch O’Brien’s Tonight Show? The 1:00 a.m. slot is a lot closer to last call.
On TBS, O’Brien could wind up with two chances to rope in an audience – so even if more people watch Leno between 11:30 and midnight, O’Brien has a better chance to snag viewers from 11:00-11:30 p.m. and 1:00-2:00 a.m., rack up big viewership numbers, and claim victory on sheer volume even while Leno wins the 11:30 time slot.
3. TBS straddles the line between cable and network television. This is important because, for as edgy as O’Brien is credited as being, he’s quite traditional in many ways. With a pedigree in Saturday Night Live, the Tonight Show, the Simpsons, and even Late Night, O’Brien’s signature projects have counted their runs in decades rather than seasons.
TBS is pretty much a network television station in two important ways. First, its mix of original and syndicated programming mimic most Fox affiliates. The big difference is that TBS is still searching for signature, cornerstone shows to build a prime time schedule around as Fox found with Married with Children in the late 1980s and the Simpsons in the early 1990s. (Notably, Fox built a solid prime time audience but could never keep them around for late night; TBS seems to be building in the opposite direction.) Second, TBS is nearly ubiquitous – among the most basic of basic cable stations.
At the same time, cable (even basic cable) offers some level of freedom that escapes over-the-air network television. Being on cable at 11:00 may offer the same creative outlet as being on at 12:30 on network television, when O’Brien shined to begin with.
TBS offers these benefits with a final caveat: because it’s cable, measures of success will be different. It will be easier to become the top-rated original program in TBS’s history than to hold that same position with Fox. After all, the difference between victory or defeat is often a matter of expectations met or missed.