NEW YORK — The late-night guessing game is over, with a startling twist: Conan O’Brien has chosen TBS as his future talk-show home.
Expected to debut in November, the as-yet-untitled show will return O’Brien to the air after an absence that began in January when he abruptly left NBC, his employer of 17 years.
O’Brien’s new program will air Mondays through Thursdays at 11 p.m. Eastern, which will shift Lopez Tonight, starring George Lopez, from 11 p.m. EDT to midnight.
O’Brien’s show will originate from Los Angeles, where he moved from New York for his short-lived stint hosting The Tonight Show. For the second half of his show, he will face off against Jay Leno, who replaced him.
Upon TBS’ announcement Monday, O’Brien quickly fired out a celebratory tweet.
“The good news: I will be doing a show on TBS starting in November! The bad news: I’ll be playing Rudy on the all new Cosby Show,” he posted on Twitter.
TBS said that talks with O’Brien accelerated last week after Lopez called O’Brien to ask him to come aboard.
“I can’t think of anything better than doing my show with Conan as my lead-in. It’s the beginning of a new era in late-night comedy,” Lopez said in a statement released by TBS.
Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, said he flew from Atlanta to George Lopez’s office on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles last Wednesday to enlist the comedian’s help.
Koonin pitched Lopez on the idea that both he and O’Brien were in their 40s and appealed to a young demographic, while Leno and David Letterman were older and played to an older crowd.
“He got very excited,” Koonin said. “George saw the vision.”
Lopez picked up the phone to speak with O’Brien immediately. With his own show just months old (it began in November), Lopez agreed to have Lopez Tonight pushed back an hour.
Within days, a deal was struck.
Koonin said the cable channel reached a “multi-year deal” with O’Brien and added, “hopefully this’ll be something that lasts for the next decade.”
The deal happened quickly, so there was no discussion about how many staff O’Brien could keep.
“In the 90 hours we had to do this, we didn’t get into that,” Koonin said.
He declined to reveal the budget for the show. “They told us what they needed to make the show, and we said, ’Let’s go make the show.”’
Koonin said he was optimistic that O’Brien will have more freedom on cable, saying “cable has historically had a different temperament than broadcast,” but noted, “Conan’s not a dirty comedian. That’s not what he does.”
O’Brien’s bitter break with NBC took place after he had hosted The Tonight Show for just eight months.
Having followed Leno with Late Night since 1993, O’Brien had been guaranteed his promotion to the Tonight Show last summer in a succession plan announced in 2004.
To keep Leno in the NBC fold, he was handed a prime-time show last fall that quickly flopped.
When O’Brien’s ratings flagged, NBC angled to move Leno to 11:35 p.m. Eastern, pushing O’Brien to a post-midnight slot. O’Brien refused, walking away with a $32 million settlement package.
Although that put him in play to host a show for another network, the exit deal barred him from appearing on TV until September. And within the TV industry as well as among viewers, the split launched a new parlour game: What Will Conan Do Next?
Monday’s surprise announcement hit only hours before O’Brien was to start a two-month, nationwide comedy tour in Eugene, Ore., aptly titled “The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour.”
The news laid to rest persistent reports that he was likely to score a show on the Fox network.
Fox told O’Brien’s representatives last week that the network would not be making a deal with him, said an executive with knowledge of the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss negotiations.
The network realized it would not be able to clear airtime for O’Brien in a manner that made sense. Most affiliates have contracts for syndicated shows airing in late-night hours that expire at different times. The idea of an O’Brien show premiering at different times over a two-year period seemed impractical, the executive said.
Fox network management had pushed to make it happen, realizing O’Brien represented perhaps their best opportunity to launch a late-night talk show, given his popularity with the type of young audience Fox seeks.
But some of the affiliates had also questioned whether a network talk show would prove as lucrative for them as selling their own commercial time for shows they air themselves.
Barring Fox, syndication to individual stations was widely considered O’Brien’s most likely option.
All the while, few if any handicappers recognized TBS as a plausible destination.
But adding O’Brien to its lineup makes sense for TBS, which has come a long way since it started out as a local Atlanta UHF station that grew into the satellite-distributed SuperStation seen nationwide, then became the foundation for Ted Turner’s media empire.
Now available in 100.4 million of the nation’s 114.9 million TV homes, TBS in recent years has successfully branded itself as the place for comedy with its slogan, “Very Funny.”
Conan’s show is “an extension of that strategy,” said Christopher Marangi, a media company analyst for Gabelli & Co.
The effect on other late night shows was unclear, but no doubt O’Brien would draw viewers, Marangi said. “Conan has a fan base and probably a good number of fans will follow him to TBS,” he said.
But the second half of O’Brien’s show could meet fierce talk-show competition from broadcast networks: CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” and, of course, NBC’s “Tonight Show.”
On cable, he’ll square off against Comedy Central, whose pair of marquee comedy half-hours — “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report With Stephen Colbert” — also begin at 11 p.m. Eastern.
O’Brien’s move to cable from broadcast caught most people off-guard and struck some observers as a big-time network star deciding to downsize. But at least one entertainment magnate said this is the new order of things.
Ben Silverman, the former NBC entertainment chief, said O’Brien’s move to cable from a broadcast network further blurred distinctions about where people watch their shows.
“I think what it means is everything is open for discussion,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were talking about it being on YouTube. I think the walls are breaking down.”
— With files from Lynn Elber in Eugene, Ore., Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles, David Bauder and Jake Coyle in New York.