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Conan to TBS: A Win for Syndicators

By not going to Fox or first-run, talk host’s deal keeps off-net sitcom slots free 4/19/2010 12:02:00 AM Eastern

Syndicators heaved a sigh of relief
after TBS announced last week
that Conan O’Brien’s late-night
show will head to the basic cable
network come November. “Not
having Conan on the Fox Network in late
night is the best thing for syndicated programming,”
says Chuck Larsen, president of
October Moon Television. “It keeps the marketplace
clear for upcoming sitcom sales.”

Warner Bros. is taking its off-CBS hit Big
Bang Theory
out for sale right now. NBC
Universal is getting ready to launch 30 Rock
in access and late fringe on many Fox stations
in fall 2011, and although the show has
guaranteed time periods, there was the risk
that some stations would have felt obligated
to move 30 Rock to accommodate Conan.

Fox’s own sister company, Twentieth Television,
could have taken the biggest hit of
all. Twentieth is launching How I Met Your
and American Dad this fall, off-FX
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in fall
2011, and preparing ABC’s Modern Family
to debut in fall 2014. Sources estimate
that Twentieth stood to take a $75 million
hit if Fox had picked up Conan.

Fox-owned stations and affiliates would
have had to move around a lot of syndicated
product to make way for Conan, and
stations weren’t convinced that his show
would perform better than the off-net
sitcoms they already air. Moreover, they
would have retained far less inventory had
they been forced to turn over a late-night
hour to the network.

Conan’s choice to head to TBS did represent
a loss of opportunity for two syndicators:
Both CBS Television Distribution and
Debmar-Mercury had pitched Team Coco on
the idea of selling Conan in prime access,
and sources say CBS already had half the
country cleared on voice commitments. At
least one major broadcast group was interested
in putting Conan in access as an alternative
to sitcoms or entertainment magazines.

The TBS deal is the least risky option
for everyone, points out Bill Carroll,
VP of programming for Katz
Media Group. “He gets almost
everything he wanted: He owns
the show, he gets a guaranteed
time period at 11 p.m., and he
works four days a week instead
of five,” Carroll says. “I don’t see
the downside.”

Strengthening TBS as a comedy
destination also is good for
syndicators; TBS has built its
brand on off-net sitcoms such as
Friends, Seinfeld and Everybody
Loves Raymond
. Syndicators in
addition have sold TBS several
first-run comedy projects. Debmar-
Mercury has three: Tyler Perry’s House
of Payne
and Meet the Browns, and the upcoming
Are We There Yet?, produced by Ice
Cube. Warner Bros. is the producer behind
Lopez Tonight, a show that was originally
pitched to Tribune and Fox-owned stations.
Observers also expect TBS to be a strong
bidder for Big Bang Theory.