April 13, 2010 3:00 am

O'Brien in surprise move to pay-TV

Conan O'Brien, the late-night comedian pushed out of NBC after a bitter, public feud with network executives, will return to television as host of a new late-night show on TBS, Time Warner's comedy cable network, in a surprise exit from free-to-air TV.

The move to TBS is another in a string of coups for the US pay-TV industry, which continues to close the gap with free-to-air rivals by investing heavily in programming to court viewers migrating away from free TV.

Time Warner, in particular, has spent heavily on high-profile programming, notably luring Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg to create a second world war mini-series. The Pacific , Mr Hanks and Mr Spielberg's latest collaboration for Time Warner's HBO, will cost an estimated $225m for 10 episodes.

Mr O'Brien was expected eventually to join Fox, owned by News Corp. He had held discussions with Fox shortly after settling a dispute with NBC to leave the Tonight Show, where he was edged out by Jay Leno.

But some of Fox's affiliate stations, which would have needed to replace profitable news and syndicated programming with a show by Mr O'Brien, were "relieved" that Mr O'Brien was joining TBS, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine, a trade publication.

TBS, which was keen to establish a stronger comedy franchise, ratcheted up negotiations last week and landed a deal after spending just 70 hours in negotiations, said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks.

Mr Koonin said Mr O'Brien's brand of comedy would fit better with TBS's younger audience. The average age for Lopez Tonight, TBS's late-night comedy show, is 33. The average age for the Tonight Show, now hosted by Mr Leno, is 56.

To secure a deal, George Lopez, a comedian whose late-night show currently occupies the 11pm timeslot that Mr O'Brien is set to take over, appealed directly to Mr O'Brien.

"I can't think of anything better than doing my show with Conan as my lead-in," Mr Lopez said. "It's the beginning of a new era in late-night comedy."

Mr Koonin said Mr O'Brien will own the as-yet-unnamed show. After announcing the new show, TBS uploaded its first video promotion on its website.

Mr O'Brien quipped: "In three months I've gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theatres, and now I'm headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly."

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