When It Comes To Late-Night, I’m Sticking With Coco

Despite Conan O’Brien Moving to Cable Network TBS, Loyal Fans Will Follow the Funny


Published: April 22, 2010

News of Conan O’Brien’s recent move to TBS has left even the late-night talk show host’s most devoted fans scratching their heads. The comedian’s shift from network to cable television comes nearly three months after his dismissal as host of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” during which time rumors of a potential deal between O’Brien and FOX quickly surfaced but later fizzled.

Reports of a five-year agreement between O’Brien and TBS ensure that the beloved redhead will entertain television viewers through at least 2015, unless of course Jay Leno claims O’Brien’s new program for his own. But the question on almost everyone’s mind still remains: why TBS?

The way I see it, why not?

TBS’s slogan, “Very Funny,” represents a significant push by the network to air primarily, if not strictly, comedic programming. O’Brien’s new show, set to air as early as November, will precede George Lopez’s still-infant “Lopez Tonight,” which premiered last fall. The network appeals to television comedy fans abound, continuously airing re-runs of syndicated sitcoms such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “The Office,” “Home Improvement,” “Family Guy” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” just to name a few.

O’Brien will join “Lopez Tonight,” alongside Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Browns” and “House of Payne” as TBS’s only four original programs.  Despite that, the network has managed to garner consistently large audiences recently, a clear result of new marketing and programming schemes. According to Nielsen, for the first quarter of 2010, TBS ranked second in average primetime viewership among cable networks in both the 18-34 and 18-49 demographics, behind only the USA Network. Last month specifically, TBS was first among 18-34 year olds in primetime viewing, averaging just fewer than 600,000 viewers per night.

Regardless of these trends, which will have a profound impact on TBS’s late-night viewership, skeptics like The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi argue that FOX would have been a more ideal location for O’Brien.  Granted, not everyone owns cable television, and therefore the potential for greater viewership comes via the basic networks. But comedy has hardly been FOX’s strong suit since the end of “That ’70s Show” in 2006.  New episodes of “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” headline the network’s self-proclaimed “Animation Domination,” but whether FOX can produce a new, live-action sitcom success remains to be seen.

Just look at FOX’s disastrous past decade in sitcom programming.  “Back to You,” starring Emmy-award winners Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, was canceled in 2008 after just 14 episodes; Pamela Anderson’s “Stacked” (2005-06) was also dumped after 14 episodes; “Method and Red” (2004) was dropped after nine; “That ’80s Show” (2002) was terminated after 13 shows, 187 less than its “70s” predecessor; and “The Return of Jezebel James” had a particularly weak three-episode run in 2008. Arguably the network’s most entertaining comedy of the 2000s, “Arrested Development” (2003-06), was shamefully canceled after just three seasons.

FOX’s target audience doesn’t suit O’Brien, either. “American Idol,” the network’s most-watched program, appeals primarily to teenagers and pre-teens, neither of which have a strong enough impact on late-night ratings to help O’Brien compete with Leno and David Letterman. Not to mention FOX will be undergoing severe programming changes in the near future. “Idol” judge Simon Cowell will not be returning to the show after this season. Action-packed thriller “24” is also in its final hours, counting down to the series finale.  Despite the tremendous success of “Glee,” FOX is an otherwise adult network of dramas like “Bones,” “House” and “Fringe.” Ironically, it was the network’s hesitancy to cut ties with late-night “Seinfeld” re-runs that stalled and ultimately shut down negotiations with O’Brien.

In “Lopez Tonight” and both Tyler Perry sitcoms, TBS has made tremendous strides towards increasing its ethnic viewership. After all, many of the acclaimed sitcom re-runs the network airs, center on well-off Caucasians in the “big city,” such as “Sex and the City.” “House of Payne,” featuring an African-American family in suburban Atlanta, is currently in its sixth season and under contract for at least 25 more episodes through next year. “Meet the Browns,” already made into both a musical and a film by Perry, has aired 74 episodes since its debut last year.

Lopez became the first Mexican-American to host a late-night talk show for an English-speaking network in the U.S. when he debuted last November. Now joining him is arguably the late-night host of our generation—a quirky, red-haired jokester whose appeal to college students has never been greater. But in changing venues, O’Brien also changes competition. His new late-night gig will air opposite Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” as well as ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Competing with these already highly viewed and admired programs will be O’Brien’s greatest challenge, particularly considering that O’Brien and Stewart share many of the same viewers.

Now that O’Brien has escaped the clutches of NBC tyranny, his creative genius can once again be free. Free, that is, from network rule, especially having been given both creative control by TBS and the added bonus of far lesser censorship in the world of cable. It’s now up to Conan to embrace this new venture and pave a new road in late-night television history. Whether or not November spells the beginning of the end for O’Brien, he made the best choice in TBS, and as I’ve vowed time and time again—wherever Coco goes, I’ll be there.