With the news that Conan O’Brien will start a show on TBS in November, there are going to be a lot of people dubious about his decision and scoffing at his new chosen network. Here’s why you shouldn’t.
1. Conan will get a big audience. I mean by comparison. From the moment he premieres, given the outreach of basic cable combined with TBS’ easy-to-locate position on most cable systems, O’Brien will immediately draw more viewers than Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. (And if you think TBS’ 10-11 p.m. line-up of Family Guy and The Office reruns is a poor lead-in for Conan, just remember that Comedy Central’s South Park reruns and stand-up-comic specials don’t do Stewart and Colbert any favors, either.)
Conan won’t come close to Leno and Letterman in ratings, of course. But the perception (that combo of hype, demos, and word-of-mouth) will be that Conan is a hit. And perception counts for a lot. It’s what makes some of you think Jon Stewart, as good as he is, out-draws your local news at 11. He doesn’t.
2. Conan instantly makes a square cable channel seem hip. Hip and cool have always been important to O’Brien and his audience, even if they don’t admit it. If there’s one thing we learned about Conan from his Tonight Show run, it’s that O’Brien is an acquired taste for mass America. Being on TBS enables O’Brien to bestow his hipness upon a low-rent cable channel. And if there’s one thing we learned about Conan’s audience from his Tonight Show run, it’s that they love to consider themselves a beleaguered cult of cognoscenti. Well, Conan’s arrival at TBS will enable Team Coco to do something cults love: take something that’s considered lame and single handedly raise it to cool status.
Plus, away from the glare of bigger networks, O’Brien can use TBS as his funky little laboratory to experiment and hatch new, even more eccentric stuff — the kind of thing the Tonight Show experience discouraged.
3. The alternative — Fox — would likely have been a disaster. As I’ve written before, Fox has never launched a successful late-night talk show, and Conan would have immediately been discussed in the media in the same breath as such failures as the Chevy Chase and Joan Rivers shows. That’s not good publicity. Plus, the lead-in Fox outlets would have provided (some of them grumpily) for O’Brien is, in most markets, its local news, not the biggest ratings-gatherers. It’s far better for Conan to mount a fresh version of his old show in a new outlet, which is what TBS provides.
For more: Conan O’Brien heads to TBS