Conan O'Brien finds late-night home on TBS: Will he get last laugh?

Conan O'Brien will return to late-night TV in November, on basic cable's TBS. Some analysts see it as a liberating move. Others say he will have to start from scratch to build an audience.

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    Comedian Conan O'Brien and his wife Liza Powell arrive at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles in this Sept. 20, 2009, file photo. O'Brien is joining cable television network TBS to host a late-night talk show, expected to start in November 2010, in a surprise move following his bitter departure from NBC's 'The Tonight Show.'
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Comedian Conan O’Brien’s surprise announcement that he will move to TBS on basic cable this November – jostling not only with broadcast icons Jay Leno and David Letterman but also cable's own jokesters, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – is drawing mixed reviews.

The announcement ends months of speculation about where Mr. O'Brien would land. He was booted out of NBC's 11:35 p.m. slot in February so that Mr. Leno's "The Tonight Show" could slink back into it after its disastrous foray into prime time.

The late-night line-up, of course, is about more than ratings and who is king of the comedy hill. Many Americans today prefer to receive their news and current events in that format, so its influence in shaping opinion is significant. “While journalism may be the Fourth Estate, late-night comedy has become the fifth estate,” where ideas – and sometimes political figures themselves – come to be seen and heard, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for the Study of Popular Television, at Syracuse University in New York.

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Some see in the TBS deal an opportunity for O'Brien to shed the strictures of the broadcast networks and rediscover his inner edge. “At TBS, he'll be free to say the things that [cable TV's] Bill Maher, George Lopez, et al, get away with,” says media expert and TV blogger Debra Caruso, in an e-mail. “He won't be marginalized; he'll be unleashed.”

Plus, she adds, he probably won't have to follow the behest of network interests who want him to shill for network programming. “He's probably also tired of the network hierarchy and the allegiance that must be paid to network programming and movies produced by parent companies,” says Ms. Caruso. If O'Brien had gone to Fox, as many speculators thought he would, "he would have been forced to promote everything that came out of that company's studio,” she adds.

But the TBS deal has its own set of challenges, many observers note.

“It seems a definite step down for Conan,” says Wheeler Dixon, a University of Nebraska media professor, in an e-mail. “It's a better fit than Fox. But this is a lose-lose strategy.”

Mr. Dixon cites several reasons O'Brien can’t compete on a TBS platform: TBS isn't really a network, so O'Brien won't have the audience penetration or reach that comes with a network; TBS's numbers are weak overall, so his 11 p.m. show won't have a good lead-in; TBS has no tradition of a late-night show, so O'Brien will have to build it from the ground up.

The move will “cheapen Conan as a performer, because by going so down market, he'll have problems landing his next gig when this show fails, and TBS's production values can't possibly match those of the networks," says Dixon. "I also think he'll have real trouble attracting 'A' list celebrities. In the end, I predict this will help TBS over the short term, but hurt Conan, and boost Leno and Letterman's dominance.”

Aspiring comic Raul Rodriguez, though, sees a sure-fire winner in all the comedic musical chairs: George Lopez's "Lopez Tonight," which now will follow O'Brien's show on TBS, at midnight. “George Lopez is going to get a boost from Conan’s lead-in, and I’m hoping to cash in on the focus on Hispanic comics,” says Mr. Rodriguez, who plans to call himself Jeffe Demento. Upon hearing the news about the O'Brien-Lopez pairing, he headed right for LA Connection, a Sherman Oaks comedy club to see if he could audition.

“This is the first time a Hispanic comedian has been linked with a pop icon like Conan O’Brien,” says Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York. “It’s really good for George Lopez.”

In Monday’s press release, O'Brien noted with his usual wry flair: “In three months I've gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I'm headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly.”

While basic cable has raised its profile with hit shows such as AMC’s “Mad Men,” “Damages,” and "Nip/Tuck,” the biggest miscalculation of this new show may be the hour it airs, says Syracuse University's Mr. Thompson.

“This 11 p.m. slot pits Conan against the two comedians most young audiences would take a bullet for,” he says, referring to Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report." Thompson acknowledges that many viewers watch those Comedy Central shows on their DVRs and laptops at other times, but he also maintains that time-shifting is less prevalent than is widely believed.

“Many people still watch shows in their actual time slot, and this puts Conan right up against two of the hippest shows on cable,” he says.

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