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TBS honcho on snagging Conan O'Brien: 'He can do whatever he wants to do here'

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conan-obrienImage Credit: Jay Brady/Everett CollectionIn one of the best-kept secrets of the TV season, TBS managed to close a late-night deal with Conan O’Brien without anyone catching wind of it. EW talked to Turner Entertainment Networks President Steve Koonin about giving O’Brien the opportunity to own his own talk show on the cabler, which skews young and reaches more than 100 million homes.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Conan O’Brien was out of job back in January. The network release said you only reached out to him a week ago. Why did it take so long?

STEVE KOONIN: I don’t want to sound too goofy and cosmic, but we just got inspired by the idea when we did our planning. We had read it was Fox Fox Fox all along, and then we saw there might be a crack. So we said, “Let’s take a look at this.” We took a very objective look. We saw how both the talent and the audience for broadcast network has gotten a lot older. The talent is in their 60s, and the audience is almost the same. The shining characteristic of George Lopez’s show is that the average age is 33. How cool would it be to have two guys in their 40s talk to viewers in their 20s and 30s on our network for the next decade? That literally was the inspiration two weeks ago.

So how did it happen?

We put it in a call to Conan’s people and said, “Hey, we’d love to have a conversation. Is that possible?” They said sure. Then I flew out and saw George and laid out the vision. George got very excited and said he was going to call Conan and tell him we’re pretty good dudes to work with. That was his exact quote. Once he made that call, it was like somebody shot off a starter’s pistol, the race began and we crossed the finish line.

When you placed that first call, were you still doubtful about your chances?

All we heard was, “We’d be happy to meet with you.” I’m always optimistic. There was never doubt in my mind, which is how you have to approach things. We had a great proposition. We have a great environment, we are young, we are a branded comedy network. We are noted for our marketing, we have terrific promotional platforms with sports and movies. We are the highest-rated comedy network on TV and we wanted to change the dialogue. That was the theme of the conversation we had with Conan.  Let’s change the dialogue and have him move from being an employee to being an owner. He can move from broadcast to cable, he can move to make a show with his sensibility and one we’ll support the hell out of for a long time.

It’s pretty much been established who rules in late night right now. Despite a huge promotional campaign by NBC, Conan wasn’t able to get the ratings for The Tonight Show. Does that give you pause?

It gives me no pause. I don’t want Leno’s audience. Our average age is 35. We’re 10 years younger than Fox, 18 years younger than NBC or CBS. That’s not who we are after. That would be like EW going after the audience for Reader’s Digest. The numbers we will do with Conan will be uber-successful for us. I have zero doubts in my mind that his show will be very successful for us. It’s all about the young and the demographic, not about the old people eyeballs.

Will Conan enjoy any more freedom on TBS?

He can do whatever he wants to do here. We think he is an incredibly talented artist and we want him to make his show and if he wants it edgier, we are 100 percent supportive.

Will Conan be able to keep his original crew? Will executive producer Jeff Ross be back? Will Andy Richter?

Jeff was a key player in this. I’m embarrassed to say I never got got the details [on whether Richter will join]. There was so much to do in such a short period of time. We were able to keep it quiet, which has floored the industry.

According to Conan’s exit contract with NBC, he can secure another network job as soon as Sept. 1. Why the decision to launch in November?

We have major league baseball playoffs and movies which are great promotional platforms. And launching in September and then pre-empting four weeks later makes no sense.

Anything else you can say about what Conan’s show will look like?

It will stay in Los Angeles. As for what the show will look like, Conan said it best to me: he said he has 3,000 hours of demo tape if I’d like to see it.