New faces sitting at the cable table

O'Brien, others expected to leave big imprint

Basic cable is ready for parity.

Turner, in particular, has been arguing for years that cablers deserve broadcast-sized ad rates. Media buyers have been slow to agree.

But this year, the cable conglom has snagged a broadcast-sized superstar to deliver its pitch: Conan O’Brien.

O’Brien last week became the latest broadcast network figure to jump to cable, signing on to host a nightly 11 o’clock talkshow for TBS.

“He becomes a key face for TBS,” says Turner Entertainment Networks prexy Steve Koonin. “This is unique and transformational for us.”

And, perhaps, for all of cable. When O’Brien steps onto Turner’s upfront stage at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom on May 19, the message will be made loud and clear to advertisers: The difference between broadcast and cable just got even smaller.

“We’ve been beating the drum for a while that it’s a one-television world,” Koonin says. “That’s why we moved our upfronts to broadcast’s week. We have more talent on TBS and TNT than any broadcast network.”

The Big Four might object to that sweeping statement. But the Turner roster has gotten quite impressive in recent years, as several other one-time network stars joined the cable conglom’s ranks — including Ray Romano and O’Brien’s upcoming latenight companion, George Lopez.

And it’s not just O’Brien who’s making the leap from the old broadcast world in the coming months. The former “Tonight Show” and “Late Night” host reps the latest in a string of TV icons who will soon be available only on cable.

That includes, of course, Oprah Winfrey, who pulls the plug on her long-running syndicated broadcast talk show next year. After that, Winfrey moves to her own OWN — the cable outfit she’ll run with Discovery.

Not to be outdone, Martha Stewart — another longtime syndicated personality in the broadcast arena — will become exclusive to the Hallmark Channel this fall. A Martha channel is also in the works at Hallmark.

For folks like Winfrey, Stewart and now O’Brien, cable allows for a much larger playground than the ones they’ve previously played in. For all her influence, Winfrey was seen on TV only once a day — now she has ownership in an entire channel, and 24 hours/7 days a week in which to instruct her followers.

Ditto Stewart, who is taking over a tremendous chunk of Hallmark’s daytime schedule. Stewart’s no longer just programming her daily hourlong talker, but making room for plenty of offshoots.

And although O’Brien is focusing on just his hourlong show for now, his deal with Turner likely means more projects down the road for his Conaco shingle.

That kind of freedom can be priceless for media mavens like Winfrey. She may have been a titan in syndication, but Winfrey was still subject to the vagaries of the broadcast business — such as declining station revenues, which threatened to impact her license fees. And folks like Stewart had to contend with clearance issues, while O’Brien has less to worry about when it comes to content issues.

Most importantly, Winfrey, Stewart and O’Brien will now own a lot more content than they used to. And in an age where outlets matter less and less, and programming can pop up on a wide variety of platforms, ownership is key.

That doesn’t mean basic cable isn’t still the butt of jokes for folks used to the world of broadcast TV — including O’Brien himself, who couldn’t help but make a crack last week about what the TBS move says about his career.

“In three months I’ve gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I’m headed to basic cable,” O’Brien quipped in the initial news release. “My plan is working perfectly.”

But Koonin was dead serious when he said last week that “if there was ever a day that validates (cable’s message), this is it.”

“You look at what broadcast used to dominate — news, sports and original series,” Koonin notes. But that monopoly is gone, thanks to the rise of cable news outlets, ESPN and original entertainment fare on virtually every cable net.

“Latenight and morning TV are the two strangleholds that broadcast TV has managed to hold on to in the last 50 years,” he added. “We looked and said, there’s a once-in-a-lifetime transformational talent in Conan. Let’s go get him.”

Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate agrees that the Conan deal “closes the gap a little, especially in latenight.”

“It points out that cable is able to leverage their advantage over broadcast — in this case, not having to worry about affiliates,” he says.

But Adgate warns not to characterize O’Brien’s move to cable as “the tipping point.” “The shifts have all been gradual, like ‘Mad Men’ and ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football,’ ” he says.

Nonetheless, put all of those slow-but-steady cable inroads together, and a lot has changed in recent years. Ten years ago, O’Brien’s move still would have been seen as a step down. But these days, cable networks are doing just fine in latenight, particularly in younger demos.

Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are competitive among young adults. TBS is a cable leader in adults 18-34, and its Turner cousin Adult Swim fares even better. Even “Lopez” has been holding his own, attracting a fairly substantial young, diverse aud.

Turner toppers note that Adult Swim leads the younger end of the 18-49 pack while a Conan-Lopez duo will likely hit more of the middle of that demo.

Combined, the Turner latenight blocks could pose a real threat to the nets.

“From Turner’s point of view, this was strategic,” one TV exec says. “For TBS, it aligned well for all of the parties.”

Preconceived notions by most in the press that O’Brien would want to stick with a broadcast network (namely, Fox) allowed TBS to strike its deal with the host in complete secrecy.

“One of the big mistakes the press made was to think that cable is a little engine, and we’re not,” Koonin says.

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