Conan O'Brien's late-night return: What to expect

Mon Nov 8, 2010 6:47pm EST
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By Tim Goodman

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Monday night, the world gets put back to right.

"Conan" will debut on TBS at 11 p.m., thus returning the once and future would-be king of late night back to, well, late night. Conan O'Brien's strange trip -- so well documented it needs no updating here -- restarts in one of those places we never guessed. Basic cable.

Obviously not NBC, where O'Brien once had an ill-advised boyhood dream to be host of "The Tonight Show." Not Fox, where the rumors and odds collided to make him an almost sure-thing there, until they didn't.

Instead, it's TBS. And credit the channel of "Very Funny" for going out to get someone who is actually funny. In the parlor game that is "What Does This All Mean?" TBS has perhaps the biggest stake. It wants to continue its evolution as a comedy destination. It wants young people to come over and join Team Coco, then sleep late, blow off some classes and watch a bunch of sitcom reruns the next day while firing up the bong. (OK, that last part isn't actually a stated goal of the network, but still, it's pretty likely. How else can anyone get through the 2 to 3:30 p.m. block of "According to Jim," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and yet another "According to Jim?")

Based on the principle of least astonishment, NBC is once again "The Biggest Loser" in all of this. Why? Because it's NBC. From the David Letterman vs. Jay Leno fiasco to the O'Brien vs. Leno fiasco, the Peacock has proven stubbornly unwilling to be managed with any sense of planning or vision. After the recent news that Leno has fallen behind Letterman and "The Daily Show" (and probably a bunch of stuff on Telemundo), all NBC is hoping is that Leno has some gas left in the tank and further erosion is not imminent.

And then there's this issue of what it means for late night as a whole and Conan in particular. Here's a short story about that: It doesn't really matter.

Seriously, has there been less need to parse the ratings in late night? The last time ratings were important, this whole Conan and Jay thing was the big story. That's a whole beard ago -- ancient times in TV Land. Sure, if declining issues lead advancing issues 2-to-1 or some such thing, NBC may panic and replace Leno with Randy Quaid. But short of that, all chairs and desks from 11 p.m. onward are safe. The risk is gone.

No matter what rating/share Conan gets, he's not going anywhere. How this affects Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's momentum means nothing. They are going nowhere. Letterman is going nowhere. Jimmy Kimmel is going nowhere. Craig Ferguson is going nowhere. Jimmy Fallon is going nowhere.   Continued...