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Conan Heads to Cable as TBS Goes ‘LoCo’

leno-conanConan O'Brien is headed to cable.

In a surprise move, the comedian and, briefly, host of NBC's Tonight Show, is moving his late-night show to Turner's TBS, where it will air Monday through Thursdays at 11 p.m. ET/PT starting in November. George Lopez's Lopez Tonight, which now airs in that slot, will shift to midnight.

TBS had proposed an offer to O'Brien, including ownership of his show, calling him "this unbelievable voice of a generational talent sitting out there," says Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks.

But the talks began in earnest only on Wednesday, after Lopez blessed the arrangement and urged O'Brien to say yes. O'Brien left NBC after the network announced plans to move Jay Leno into his 11:30 slot.

A five-year deal was signed late Friday at a price Koonin would describe only as "competitive." O'Brien, 46, will remain in Los Angeles.

Fox was his expected future home, and executives had talked openly for months of their interest in hiring the comedian to expand into late night during the week, after several failures years ago. But its local stations were reluctant to clear their lineups of lucrative syndicated reruns, making it unclear how widely a new Conan show on Fox would initially be seen.

Though prohibited by his $32.5 million NBC exit deal from appearing on television until September, O'Brien has stayed in the public spotlight, starting a widely followed Twitter feed and launching a multi-city stand-up tour, which begins tonight in Eugene, Ore.

"In three months I've gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I'm headed back to basic cable," the comedian said in a statement. "My plan is working perfectly."

The TBS deal allows O'Brien to return to late night but avoid head-to-head competition, at least in his first half-hour, with David Letterman and Jay Leno, whom he succeeded and was later replaced by at NBC. Instead, O'Brien will compete for his core audience of younger male viewers with Comedy Central's Daily Show With Jon Stewart and the Adult Swim channel, which is also owned by Turner.

TBS averages 1.7 million viewers in prime time, ranking seventh, but has established a clear brand as a comedy destination with reruns of Seinfeld, Family Guy, The Office and other shows.

Koonin calls the deal "transformative," expects it will "bring a lot of new people to the network" and, he hopes, "top comedic talent" for other projects. The show will be just like the one O'Brien has done at NBC since 1993: "He told me, 'I have 3,000 examples of the show I want to do,' " Koonin says.

The network began promoting its latest conquest Monday night with a spot using the now-familiar "I'm with Coco" illustration, which changes to "Coco is with TBS."

Brad Adgate, analyst at ad firm Horizon Media, says the move is "not as strange as you might think," and highlights the appeal of cable over broadcast networks, which rely on local, often independently owned affiliates to air their programs.

"Lopez is doing serviceably in the time period with about 1 million viewers, but Conan could do more," Adgate says. (O'Brien averaged about 2.4 million on NBC.)

Yet "ratings expectations aren't going to be as high" as they might be on Fox, Adgate says. "This, for him, is probably going to be less of a pressured situation. It's about as safe a bet as you can make for him."

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