by Dave Zornow
Network TV has long pitted the laws of gravity against the laws of inertia. Despite audience ratings a fraction of what they were 25 years ago, instead of prices falling to earth, they have continued to rise. Among media buyers, inertia always beats gravity because old habits are hard to change. Although cable and the Internet are less expensive ways to reach the same people, network TV still rules the roost.
TV critics, however, are not so forgiving. Which is why Conan’s November move to TBS is a win-win for Time Warner and O’Brien.
Scenario: O’Brien signs with Fox. Can you easily imagine the post premiere headlines? “Sorry Team Conan, Jay Leno’s Ratings Are Enormous” or “Conan keeps heat on NBC during ‘Tonight.” Wait, sorry — those were actual headlines from last year. You get the point. It’s too easy for critics and TV handicappers make an apples to apples category and declare a Winner and a Loser.
Cable solves all of that. Although The Daily Show and Colbert can’t compete with the audience size of Leno and Letterman, no one writes them off. Call it a double standard. But no one ever said the entertainment business was fair.
The NY Daily News put it nicely: on NBC, 2.5 millions viewers a night made Conan a disaster. On TBS, it would make him a Cable God.
TBS is taking a page from the Fox playbook — literally. When Fox threw a financial ‘hail mary’ pass in 1994 and acquired their first Sunday NFL package for $395 million a year, it was a coming of age moment for a network mostly known for The Simpsosn and Married With Children. They probably lost lots on that first deal. But in the long run it paid off — big. TBS stands to gain in the same way by backing the TBS “Very Funny” slogan with a very funny, big name talent.
It also works — potentially — for the bumped George Lopez, too. Although he gets a less favored time slot, he will benefit from the massive exposure that CocoLoco will generate. And don’t count out the DVR (re)generation, either — or cable’s ability to reuse and recycle owned content over and over (rumor has it that the Latin translation of cable is “re-run it until you wear the sprockets out.”)
Kudos to Conan for changing the rules in a no-win network TV game to win big financially from two networks while breathing new life into his career, TBS’s future and future schedule-Wingman George Lopez’s show, too.
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