How TBS Snagged Conan O'Brien From Fox


“In three months I’ve gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theatres, and now I’m headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly,” Conan O’Brien joked last April.

But TBS, the network that snagged Conan from Fox, has nothing to complain about.

Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin made the biggest move of his career when he persuaded Conan to leave the prestige and audience of broadcast networks, and bring his talent to a cable network outfit like TBS instead.

The television industry was stunned. How the hell did Koonin pull it off?

1. He acted sort of insane.

Koonin takes big risks — some of them have paid off, but some of them have been complete fiascos.

According to a profile in Forbes magazine, when Koonin worked with Coca-Cola in 1998, he collaborated with scientists to shoot a pattern of laser beams to form the Coke logo on the moon for Y2K.

After several months and over six figures spent on planning, the Federal Aviation Administration quashed the idea, arguing lasers that strong could cut planes in half.

2. He had money to spend.

TBS doesn’t have the size of audience that networks like Fox have, but it has more money to spend. While broadcast networks like NBC and Fox only make money from advertising, TBS makes money from both ads and cable subscriber fees — and TBS is one of the biggest cable networks out there.

In short, they can afford to spend more on Conan, while also living with lower ratings.

3. He kept it young.

Conan’s target audience is much younger that Leno’s or Letterman’s — and that’s exactly what TBS is offering Conan. Leno’s median age is 56 and Letterman’s is 55, but the median age of TBS’ viewership is 35.

Moreover, the lead-ins to Conan’s new show would be male-targeted series like Family Guy and Big Bang Theory repeats.

4. He got TBS’s old hosts to ask Conan to replace them.

Koonin had George Lopez, whose show will be bumped back an hour to accommodate Conan’s, call Conan himself to sell him on the idea. TBS’ official line is that Lopez wants Conan to take over his slot.

sceptical? Lopez probably figured that a midnight show with a Conan lead-in would be a better bet than an 11pm show with sitcom reruns as a lead-in.

5. He did it himself.

Koonin, not any employees, met with Conan’s camp himself, worked through the smallest details of negotiation, and closed the deal in nine secretive days. “It’s like if [Barack] Obama came down to Louisiana and got into a submarine and went down to the bottom of the Gulf to try to figure out how to stop the leak,” Gavin Polone, Conan’s manager, told Forbes.

6. He groveled.

Thousands of employees with Conan T-shirts and signs greeted Conan on his meeting at TBS. But Koonin originally suggested that the entire company greet him in red wigs.

That idea was vetoed.

“I usually take it one step too far,” admits Koonin.

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