When Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show, NBC spent a reported $50 million to transform the former sound stage of the Jack Benny show and the original Knight Rider TV series into a lavish talk show set for its late-night star. Located on the Universal lot near Burbank, Calif., the stage was custom-made to accommodate comedy skits, a band, and a healthy studio audience. It is also near huge parking garages and major city thoroughfares, which made it that much more crowd-friendly.
Now that TBS has announced that O’Brien will star in his own talk show for the cable network come November, the big question is whether he might actually consider returning to his fancy old sound stage. He’s already indicated that he’ll stay in Los Angeles and keep longtime associates around like executive producer Jeff Ross, but he’s yet to announce where he’ll tape his Monday through Thursday program that will air at 11 p.m. It’s not inconceivable to think he’d consider going back to his old digs. The Universal sound stage has largely remained dark since his final Tonight Show taping, save for a few minor productions here and there. And it’s not like the broadcast networks are dead set against renting valuable sound stage space to the competition; the CBS-owned lot at the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, for example, is home to American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, two of the highest rated shows on TV. The lot also has enough space to accommodate The Wanda Sykes Show, Fox’s late-night talk show that airs on Saturdays, and CBS’ own The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
Since O’Brien will own his show, start-up costs will certainly be an issue: It can run anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million to retrofit a sound stage, experts say, to say nothing of the additional dollars it will require to rent the 16,000 square feet-or-so in space he’ll likely need to do a talk show. With that it mind, it could make sense for O’Brien to return to his old Tonight Show digs, especially considering the sweet irony that would result from his headlining a hit show for TBS on NBC-owned property (a source in the O’Brien camp says it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he’d go back there, and an NBC insider concurs). But even with the knowledge that he’d never have to deal with the same execs who wanted him out — facility management, after all, runs separately than network operations — it seems unlikely that O’Brien would have the stomach to drive onto his old lot. “The bad blood is probably too much to overcome,” opines one executive at a competing network. Maybe. Stay tuned.