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Conan O'Brien heads to TBS

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conan-obrienImage Credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty ImagesIn a surprise announcement, TBS announced today that Conan O’Brien will headline an 11 p.m. late-night show for the cable network in November. His program will serve as a lead-in to TBS’ fledging Lopez Tonight, which will shift to a midnight time slot. The network said O’Brien only began talking to execs there last week, and Lopez even called O’Brien himself. “I can’t think of anything better than doing my show with Conan as a lead-in,” Lopez said in a statement. Added O’Brien, “In three months I’ve gone from network TV to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I’m headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly.”

News of O’Brien’s yet-to-be-named show that will air Mondays through Thursdays came as a surprise — especially since the conventional wisdom around town was that O’Brien would end up on Fox, with which his camp had been negotiating until last week. The broadcast network has long been angling to get back into the late-night talk show business, even though insiders have  stressed that it would take a lot of work to convince its stations to open up the 11 p.m. time slot for a pricey network talk show. Right now, the Fox-owned stations air off-net sitcoms in the time slot and reap huge profits because they sell up to 11 minutes of ad time during the hour. If the lucrative time slot reverted back to the network, the stations would have had to give up some commercial time, which would have resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in ad revenue. There was also the issue of contractual obligations; some stations offered time slot guarantees to off-net shows so the stations would face potential lawsuits if they bumped comedy reruns for O’Brien. To avoid legal troubles, some stations would have had to air O’Brien in later time slots for the short term. That potential lack of continuity couldn’t have been attractive to O’Brien’s camp.

Under the terms of his rich exit deal from NBC, in which he agreed to abdicate his role as the host of The Tonight Show in exchange for a large cash payout of more than $40 million, O’Brien was permitted to pursue other opportunities after Sept. 1. O’Brien has mostly stayed out of the public eye since stepping down in January, though he found some comic refuge in Twitter. He begins his multi-city comedy tour tonight in Eugene, Ore.

It’s debatable whether O’Brien on TBS poses a huge threat to the broadcast networks since viewers have already decided who they prefer in late night. O’Brien got a huge promotional push when he took over The Tonight Show last year but he hasn’t able to maintain Jay Leno’s winning ratings — which is why NBC made the controversial decision to pull the chair out from under him. Leno returned to the time slot after the Olympics and, as expected, is back on top. Letterman trails in second place.

Once on TBS, however, O’Brien should appeal to the same (young) audience that already tunes into Lopez Tonight, which attracts an average age of 33. Still, competition for the younger eyeballs will be fierce in the time slot given the stiff competition from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Colbert Nation, both on Comedy Central. O’Brien is not airing on Fridays because TBS devotes the night to movies – a vital part of its weekend lineup.

For more on O’Brien going to TBS:

TBS exec: Conan O’Brien can go edgier if he wants