In a move it’s safe to say no one saw coming, Conan O’Brien has found a new home on basic cable, signing a deal to host a one-hour late-night talk show on TBS.
O’Brien’s as-yet-untitled 11 p.m. show will bow on the Turner network in November, shifting Lopez Tonight to the midnight slot.
In a statement, TBS indicated that it had begun talking with O’Brien just last week, after George Lopez personally lobbied the former Tonight Show host to join TBS’ late-night lineup.
“In three months I’ve gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I’m headed to basic cable,” O’Brien cracked. “My plan is working perfectly.”
The news came as a major surprise, as most industry watchers expected O’Brien would sign on with Fox. That said, as Rupert Murdoch suggested a few months ago, a Fox deal was never a fait accompli.
“If the programming people can show us that we could do it, and…make a profit on it, we’d do it in a flash,” Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., told investors on Feb. 3. “We’re giving it a lot of thought and a lot of examination.”
While talks between Team Conan and Fox entertainment chairman Peter Rice and entertainment president Kevin Reilly had been heating up in the last few weeks, concerns about a lack of enthusiasm from some network affiliates threatened to undermine any agreement between the two camps.
It is not known how much TBS will invest in the new O’Brien venture, although it’s likely that the cable net will nearly meet the $60 million budget Fox was said to have been eyeballing as recently as a week ago. By comparison, the short-lived Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien cost NBC $85-90 million altogether, including the host’s estimated $12 million salary.
TBS’ big deal strikes yet another blow for Turner, which has spent the last several years taking aim at its network TV rivals. “For decades, late-night TV has been dominated by broadcast television,” said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment. “Now, with a young audience and a growing late-night lineup, TBS is set to be the choice of comedy fans for years to come.”
The deal was announced as O’Brien kick-starts his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” comedy tour.
O’Brien began making a name for himself as a staff writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. He left the writers’ room for good in 1993, when Late Night With Conan O’Brien launched on NBC. The show ran for 16 years, ending when O’Brien briefly took over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. That experiment lasted seven months.