A surprise? Heck, yes. The unchallenged assumption in the media and the TV industry was that O'Brien would become Fox's next late-night host, jump-starting a long-thwarted ambition that goes back to the network's earliest days.
Instead, O'Brien lands at TBS. His new show will air Mondays to Thursdays at 11 p.m. starting in November. A network spokeswoman Monday said TBS would continue to schedule movies on Friday nights.
O'Brien himself best captured the unconventional-bordering-on-surreal feel of this move: "In three months I've gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I'm headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly."
In a statement Monday, TBS made clear that O'Brien - who would have been bumped from 11:35 to midnight had he remained at NBC - was not displacing George Lopez's talk show at 11. In fact, Lopez (according to TBS) even lobbied O'Brien to join: "I can't think of anything better than doing my show with Conan as my lead-in," he said in a statement. Lopez's low-rated show will air at midnight.
Fox and O'Brien had been negotiating about a show almost from the day he left NBC in January, and a handful of ideas had been floated that might get around the obvious roadblock - that Fox affiliates make far too much money with syndicated programming at 11. One theory was to simulcast a show on Fox's cable sibling FX and the network; another, to air Conan's show at 11:30 instead of 11; and yet another, to slowly add affiliates as the years went on, until the show reached all viewers.
None of the ideas were perfect and Monday's major announcement demonstrated just how imperfect they were. Fox simply could not get enough stations to agree to carry the show.
According to the Live Feed - the Hollywood Reporter blog that reported Sunday night that a potential Fox deal had hit a roadblock - O'Brien will make $10 million at TBS, or "comparable" to his NBC salary. In addition, it's expected TBS will allow him ownership of his program, which is David Letterman's model at CBS. Fox would have reportedly owned O'Brien's program.
Winners and losers? Certainly TBS, whose best-known homegrown comedy brand is "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," is a winner. O'Brien half-wins - he gets a huge commitment, and a guaranteed time slot - but a fraction of the promotional firepower Fox would have offered. Fox, meanwhile, will have to wait to get into late night. Put a mark next to it in the "loser" box.