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 involved.