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How badly did Murdoch want Conan? Maybe not badly enough

April 13, 2010 | 12:37 pm

It's been more than 24 hours since Conan O'Brien announced he signed a deal to take his late-night show to the cable network TBS -- not  Fox, as many in the industry expected. Now that an entire day has passed, it is time for some deep reflection and analysis, the kind that can only come after taking some real time to look at all the angles in a story.

In today's media world, one day is about all the time we have, so take this for what it is worth.

There is a lot of talk about whether Fox was beaten to Conan by TBS or if it had already passed on him. As Company Town noted early and often, there were always lots of hurdles to Fox getting  O'Brien for late night. The TV stations that Fox owns and the network's affiliates have long-term deals to show reruns of sitcoms late at night, and they make a lot of money from those shows. The affiliates really were not too keen on giving up valuable real estate and revenue to Fox.

Yes, those were real issues, but some two decades (sigh) of covering Fox and its parent News Corp. also tells me that when Rupert Murdoch wants something, he usually gets it. If Murdoch firmly believed that establishing a show in late night was vital to Fox's future (as was the case when the network went after David Letterman all those years ago), he and News Corp. President Chase Carey would have browbeat affiliates into carrying O'Brien on their stations at 11 p.m. across the country. It wouldn't have been pretty, but it would have been done. Crikey, he bought the Wall Street Journal at a time when everyone thinks print's future is, uh -- well, bleak would be the kindest word for it.

Ultimately, signing O'Brien was not crucial enough to Fox for Murdoch and Carey to roll up their sleeves. Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Rice and President Kevin Reilly may have done a lot of number-crunching, and internally all may have agreed that O'Brien would be a great "get," but the headaches were too great and the rewards too few.

The risks for TBS are much lower. Its "affiliates" are cable operators that already pay the network to receive its programming. If O'Brien delivers an audience (and it doesn't have to be a huge audience, we're talking cable here), then TBS wins more ad revenue and can boost the rates in fees it charges cable operators.

Of course, you know who ultimately picks up the tab for that.

-- Joe Flint

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