Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Alan Sepinwall tells us why Conan's move to TBS was the "right choice"
But the best jokes all come from truth, and the truth is that the TBS move, while a shocker, is probably the smartest one Conan could have made once NBC squeezed him out of "The Tonight Show" chair.
Going to Fox would have been Conan repeating the same mistake he made in wanting "The Tonight Show" so badly, and in going through with that plan even after NBC poisoned the well for him by putting Jay Leno on at 10.
Conan wanted "Tonight" because of what it once was - the Johnny Carson version he grew up watching in an era when the broadcast networks ruled all - rather than what it had become by the time he was due to inherit it. Conan's audience was not the "Tonight" audience, and at 11:30 viewers who might otherwise be on Team Coco were used to watching Stephen Colbert or Adult Swim, while viewers accustomed to 17 years of Leno-fied "Tonight" soundly rejected the new guy. (Since Leno reclaimed the show, the overall audience has gone up, but so has the median age of that audience.)
Everyone assumed Conan would go to Fox, but that was only because Fox was the last of the Big Four networks without some kind of presence in late night from Monday to Friday. But that kind of thinking is what led to Conan trying and failing to be accepted by the Leno crowd.
Sure, the broadcast networks are still the biggest game in town, but they're not as big as they used to be, and success in television these days comes as often from finding and satisfying a niche - which Conan did splendidly for so many years on "Late Night" - as from trying to bring in a bigger, more diverse, less engaged crowd.
TBS doesn't have the audience Fox has, but it has more money to spend. It's one of the biggest outfits in cable, and cable has an unfair financial advantage over the networks: where broadcasters like NBC and Fox only make money from advertising, a TBS makes money from both ads and cable subscriber fees. So they can afford to spend more on Conan (all reports on Monday suggested the TBS deal was much bigger than anything Fox was offering) while also living with lower ratings, where NBC had to pull the plug on Conan's "Tonight" (which was getting viewership numbers much higher than he'll likely get on TBS for a while, if ever) after only a few months.
Fox, on the other hand, not only had to limit its financial risk, but had to battle with local affiliate stations to air a Conan show at 11 or even 11:30, when many of those affiliates would rather air lucrative repeats of "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons," et al. TBS has no affiliates to please; when Conan's show launches in November, it'll be on at the same time everywhere you get TBS, which is virtually every cable supplier in the country.
(And in the process, Conan will push incumbent TBS latenight host George Lopez to midnight. But where Conan balked at NBC's attempt to push him back to midnight by a Leno return to 11:35, TBS' official party line is that Lopez asked Conan to come on board. If true, he no doubt figured that a show at midnight with a Conan lead-in was a better long-term bet than a show at 11 with sitcom reruns as a lead-in.)
If Conan went to Fox, he'd be fighting for a slice of the same aging (and less lucrative) pie that still turns to the networks for late night comedy, and he'd be starting out with a show that, at best, would have aired at 11 o'clock in 70% of the country. Every tenth of a percentage point up or down would have been analyzed to death by the media, and chances are it still wouldn't have worked.
At TBS, he's suddenly the channel's biggest star, and yet overall expectations will be much lower than they'd be at Fox. He'll also hopefully have more freedom to experiment with the form, and to focus more on the things he does best (absurdist comedy) and less on the traditional areas where he's not that interesting (the promotional interviews).
Conan can joke about going from broadcast to basic cable, but the fact is we're on at least our second generation of Americans to grow up with cable in the home, and for whom TBS and CBS are two equal channels in the same DVR programming guide.
In his final, moving moments as host of "The Tonight Show," Conan asked of his viewers, "Please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism - it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."
A cynic might suggest that Conan was settling with this decision. But in the long run, I suspect he's going to be much happier - and in a much better position from which to attempt amazing things - than if he'd gone to Fox just because he felt he had to stay in the broadcast network game.