The Reason Conan Really Went to TBS

The whole “Team Coco” thing
is cute. The cross-country tour
of live shows was a fun idea to
keep Conan O’Brien’s name in
the news. And the Twitter account
got some nice buzz. All in all, Conan
O’Brien’s team has been doing a fine job
advising the late-night host since NBC
dropped him, all with the goal of fanning
the flames for a return to TV.

But there was one truth they could
not spin, one fact that no amount
of buzz could overcome. And it
is the sole reason why Conan
O’Brien is heading
to cable: His
television audience
isn’t big enough for
a major late-night
slot in broadcast
television given the
current economics
of the daypart. And
it is for that reason—
and only that reason—that O’Brien
will debut on TBS this fall, and not on Fox
or ABC.

As the news came out last week that
O’Brien would be journeying to cable,
along with his masturbating animals—referring
to an ongoing feature, not sidekick
Andy Richter—there was some back-andforth
in the media as to whether Fox had
turned down Conan or Conan had turned
down Fox. How it went down in the end
is irrelevant. If O’Brien had been drawing
ratings like Jay Leno or David Letterman,
he would have been snapped up weeks ago.

Or never jettisoned in the first place.

This is not a shot at O’Brien, who now
will grow into a cable superstar (and for
most of America, there is no difference between
that and a broadcast star). It is just a
matter of numbers. Put simply, O’Brien’s
perceived audience was not enough to offset
the damage it would have done to News
Corp.’s profitability.

And this is about more than Fox.
This wasn’t just about advertising
rates offsetting costs on the network.
This was about stations having to
dump out of contracts for syndicated
fare they had
already purchased.
And this was about
potential damage
being done to
News Corp.’s own
syndication division,
as O’Brien
would have taken
valuable time slots
out of play for the Twentieth crew. And this
was all being discussed under the overhanging
cloud of retransmission consent talks.

So, the decision came down not as a
judgment of comedic excellence, but of
Excel spreadsheets. When you modeled out
the move, it was too big a hit to take when
extrapolating O’Brien’s couple of million
viewers over the number of clearances he
would have secured from the start.

If O’Brien’s ratings were higher—and
yes, the Jay Leno lead-in at NBC clearly
did him no favors, yet another way O’Brien
will continue to feel screwed by Leno—
the economics could have made sense. If
O’Brien had been able to keep Leno-esque
numbers, in the range of 5 million viewers,
when he took over The Tonight Show,
a Fox deal would have happened. And ABC
would have been a bidder as well. Or NBC
never would have dropped him.

This decision had little to do with talent,
or upside, from Fox’s perspective. Senior
Fox executives, speaking at a network event
last week just hours after the announcement,
told me they really thought O’Brien
had captured something in his final weeks
at NBC. They looked like fishermen who
knew the big one might have gotten away.

So, thanks to some last-minute maneuvering,
TBS landed a whale. Will O’Brien be a
money-maker on cable? It’s uncertain (and
potentially irrelevant if you factor in the upside
for the TBS brand), but it sure will be
easier for both Conan and his new network.

There will be no stories of clearances
(or lack thereof) and no straight audience
comparisons to Leno and Letterman. Plus,
cable will give O’Brien a chance to sway
into his edgier comfort zone, protected
from judgmental eyes like the FCC.

In the end, Conan O’Brien just did not
come with the built-in audience to get a
broadcast network to make the move. And
from both a business and creative standpoint,
that will be the best thing for everyone