Once the shock of former "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien's move to basic-cabler TBS had worn off Monday (April 12), professional TV watchers began to dissect the latest surprise from the red-haired late-night stepchild.
"TBS would not have been the first place I'd have thought he would go, but in a way it makes sense," said Mary McNamara, TV critic for the Los Angeles Times. "The whole late-night landscape seems like it's at a crossroads now. I mean, how long can the Leno/Letterman thing go on? Conan didn't succeed there like he wanted to, and you can blame Jay, and I do, but he didn't get the bump he expected to from the younger audience, so now he's going to basic cable, where guys like [Comedy Central's] Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are redefining what late-night programming can be."
McNamara said it will be interesting to see what kind of show O'Brien does, whether it will be the slightly more traditional late-night programming he tried during his brief tenure as "Tonight Show" host or something totally new that we haven't seen before. The upside, she predicted, is that he's likely to have much more freedom to be creative at TBS, a station best known for rerunning sitcoms like "Seinfeld" and, more recently, for wading into late night with the "Lopez Tonight" show starring comedian George Lopez, who agreed to push his show back in order to make room for O'Brien.
"Also, he won't have to come out of the box with huge numbers, because TBS doesn't have huge numbers," she said. "If he started at Fox, what would we give him? A week? He'll have more breathing room, and they won't expect 10 million viewers in the first week. Then again, if he does, it will be the highest-rated TBS show ever!" Should he succeed, McNamara said O'Brien could do for TBS what the Emmy-winning "Mad Men" has done for AMC in terms of raising its cachet.
Then again, she noted that the downside is that "It's TBS. ... Nobody watches it." McNamara said there could also be the perception that comedy veteran O'Brien is backing away from the big leagues after being roughed up and is returning to the farm team. "Things are so fluid, it depends on what he does," she said. "He could build up a nice fanbase and bring a whole different level of competition to late night and be a game changer. Either way, we're talking about it more than if he'd gone to Fox."
Robert Thompson, director of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, was shocked at how fast the deal happened and said that although many of his students probably couldn't even find TBS on their cable lineups today, when O'Brien debuts in the fall, he suspects they'll quickly seek it out. "With a two-hour comedy block, this puts TBS up there with CBS, NBC and Comedy Central as one of the locations of late-night television," he said.
But just getting on the map is different than staying there. If O'Brien delivers the same watered-down "Tonight Show" version of his old subversive talker, Thompson said he could flop with the fervent fans of Stewart's "Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," whose viewers he said "would take a bullet" for their comedy heroes.
"I thought 11:30 was too early for him, and 11 is definitely too early," he said, noting that many in that young male demo watch their favorite shows on the Web or on DVR but still might not have time for another new show. "The later it gets, the better he gets. Most of his core audience hasn't staggered home before midnight, not to mention 11. That Colbert/Stewart hour is the most exciting one on TV right now."
Another possible downside is that with its slate of sitcom reruns, TBS doesn't have a great lead-in for O'Brien, the same problem he faced with the weak Leno lead during his brief "Tonight Show" stint.
Then again, TBS has been making a very strong push lately to join the likes of TNT and AMC as a basic-cable player with fresh original programming, and Jennifer Armstrong, senior writer for Entertainment Weekly, said that means the network will probably go all out promoting the O'Brien show. "Basic cable still has the ability to promote the heck out of you, because in general, they still have fewer shows overall than broadcast networks, and they're trying to gain a foothold of respectability, especially in the late-night arena," she said. "I'm guessing they must have [also] backed up the money truck to at least compete ... [but] this could get him back in the game, because all these months later, there is still so much heat on this story."
The hurdle O'Brien might face, she added, is the lingering perception for many adults that TBS is "really basic cable," the land of "Mama's Family" reruns, baseball games and "The Flintstones." With a slate of potential lead-ins such as young male-friendly reruns of "Family Guy," it could end up being a smart move on O'Brien's part.
Even though TBS has been moving toward more original programming, she said there's still the lingering thought for many adults "it's not the best one can do." But because expectations at basic cable are different than on network TV, the bar is lower, so unless Conan completely face-plants, he should be just fine.
"People will definitely still compare his ratings to Leno and Letterman for sport, but even if he doesn't completely beat them in total viewers, TBS will be the first to put out the young-adult numbers if they're good," she said. "In a weird way, once you get over TBS-ness, it could be a good move. It's a low-key place where it's almost impossible to fail, and he'll have more freedom to do the things he could not do once he took over that earlier time slot."