Just in time for the upfront, TV marketers will now consider Conan O'Brien... on TBS.
While outsiders all assumed O'Brien's obvious next stop after his ouster at NBC was Fox, few looked at the real business math at work. That's why this nuts-and-bolts, unglamorous tale is ultimately about TBS.
O'Brien seemed like a match for Fox -- still the upstart network, maybe looking to finish the job against the traditional networks by going after the one daypart it should have owned at the start: late night.
Fox affiliates have been this route before - with Joan Rivers (right at the start of network in the late '80s) and then in 1993 with Chevy Chase for a big four-week run. Those efforts didn't work.
Jump ahead almost two decades, with a media business looking to make every nickel and dime work. There is more fractionalization of TV viewership, not just in cable with the Jon Stewarts and Stephen Colberts, but with the Internet for young viewers to dabble in.
No longer are TV stations' profits margins dancing in the 50% ballroom floor anymore.
And then came September 2008 and all of 2009. After one of the worst periods ever, TV stations are less likely to give up valuable advertising inventory in late night, where off-network TV sitcoms are still proven products.
Also, if it wasn't good for NBC affiliates, why should it be good for Fox stations? Someone figured out the right answer here.
Fifteen years ago there probably would have been a different scenario. Broadcast ratings still had a big lead over cable and other media. Now, times are tougher.
What about O'Brien's highly touted younger viewers? Problem is, the niche marketplace for younger viewers doesn't only belong to Fox anymore. There are other places to get young viewers, like some cable networks.
There is also the crucial programming factor of the lead-in. Who would be so daring as to suggest that Fox's 10 p.m. local TV news programs are any better in giving O'Brien the proper lead to get his show started at 11 p.m.?
The alternative to Fox? Cable, where there's no worry about getting the right clearance levels, and TBS has plenty of young-skewing off-network prime-time comedies like "Family Guy" to give the show a nice lead-in push.
Though ratings will probably be lower for O'Brien on TBS than on NBC, there is less financial worry with TBS -- especially considering cable's still strong dual revenue system of advertising sales and monthly cable subscriber fees.
Why did everyone guess wrong? Because industry observers quickly forgot this was 2010, not 1995. They were under the mistaken belief that networks still make pricey programming decisions.
But broadcast networks, including Fox, are less in the business of backing financial projects on the come these days. Going into deficit financing. TV shows need to work immediately, or to be profitable quickly.
Fox couldn't get a wide-based clearance guarantee from stations -- and no one was willing to foot the bill. The glamour factor of broadcast networks isn't a factor any longer.
O'Brien and his handlers must have looked at this situation soberly, even as O'Brien's deprecating humor was working hard in a statement about the 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."