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04.12.10

Inside Conan's TBS Deal

Why did Conan O’Brien choose TBS over Fox for his new late-night show? Kim Masters talks to the comedian’s manager, Gavin Polone, about Team Coco’s shocking move.

The breakup was mutual.

While Conan O’Brien’s manager, Gavin Polone, tells The Daily Beast that TBS rapidly wooed and won O’Brien to launch a new 11 p.m. show in November, a top Fox executive says the network was not exactly left at the altar.

This executive says Team Coco knew the network was having great difficulty getting its affiliates to agree to take on a new O’Brien show. “I think they made an informed decision to go elsewhere,” he says. “I don’t think there are any hard feelings here.” He says Fox executives were “disappointed [but] not angered or blindsided” by O’Brien’s decision.

TBS also made a convincing argument about how the channel would sell O’Brien across various platforms. And they offered up something that Fox would not: ownership of the show.

The executive notes that while the Fox network very much wanted to go forward with O’Brien, the plan was a huge problem for some of its affiliates. Having been buffeted by the recession, they would have had to swallow the cost of deals already in place for programming at 11 p.m. in addition to paying fees for Fox’s programming. Some of the stations said they understood the potential benefit of having an O’Brien show at 11 p.m. but they simply couldn’t make it work for the next couple of years. “It started to look like it was not going to be a win,” he says, adding that Team Coco was kept very much in the loop as these difficulties became more apparent.

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“We were not going to ram it down the stations’ throats,” the Fox executive says. As a result, he says a new O’Brien show would not have been on the air at all in some markets, at least for a couple of years.

This executive adds that while the Fox network wanted to proceed, all parties may be better off: The Fox network will avoid a big risk and O’Brien will likely be happier at TBS even though the comic was inclined to stay in the broadcast arena and go up against Jay Leno and David Letterman. “I know he was up for getting into the big scrum but on some level he will find this a little more fun,” he says. Not only will he be under less pressure but cable offers more freedom in terms of content than a broadcast network.

Had O’Brien tried to make a show work at Fox, it would have been essential to pull in strong ratings to drive the price of advertising. The executive says no one wanted to put O’Brien under constant media scrutiny again and no one wanted him to be in a position in which the costs turned out to be so great that success may have been unattainable.

At 11 p.m., O’Brien will now go up against Jon Stewart but the Fox executive says Stewart has never opted to join the battle for big ratings. Advertisers will covet spots on the O’Brien show, he predicted.

According to O’Brien’s manager, TBS approached O’Brien about a week and a half ago. “It was an all-out assault,” Polone says. “They started saying they were going to do all these thing—we didn’t believe it.” The main source of the incredulity: that comedian George Lopez would be willing to move his talk show to midnight. “Conan would never get involved or consider a situation where he was pushing somebody out,” Polone says.

But to the surprise of Team Coco, Lopez called O’Brien and sold the idea, according to Polone. He says TBS had data showing that Lopez’s audience—young and male—stays up late and that Lopez would get better ratings with an O’Brien lead-in. Polone says Lopez told O’Brien, “I really want you here. You and I are the team. I want to move to midnight.”

He said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, was “like a general leading troops into battle,” adding that the deal was sewn up in two days and the paperwork was done in half a day. “That never happens,” he says. “It was literally amazing every step of the way.”

Polone says George Lopez told O’Brien, “I really want you here. You and I are the team. I want to move to midnight.”

TBS also made a convincing argument about how the channel would sell O’Brien across various platforms. And they offered up something that Fox would not: ownership of the show. Polone adds that TBS has other advantages over Fox, including an even younger demographic. And Fox was facing daunting problems with its affiliates, many of whom have bought other expensive programming for the 11 p.m. slot. O’Brien’s show “would have been on at midnight in a lot of places,” Polone says.

Polone says he informed Fox executives Peter Rice and Kevin Reilly of the deal this morning and the conversations were “gracious.”

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business, and the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.