Conan to TBS: A Win for Syndicators

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 Mother 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.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.