Conan O'Brien to TBS: Smart Move or Big Risk?

Of all the codas that could have grown out of NBC's very long and very weird late-night reshuffle, this is one nobody could have seen coming: Conan O'Brien is taking his show not to Fox, as was previously speculated, but to TBS, where he'll now act as a lead-in to George Lopez's Lopez Tonight. The migration to a cable network was always a possibility, but the conventional wisdom was that Comedy Central would make the best fit for Conan's comic sensibilities (now playing in a theatrical road show), rather than TBS, whose slogan is "Very Funny," but hasn't done the best job of solidifying a brand. It's a choice fraught with peril for Conan: does the move to TBS raise the network's cachet, or lower Conan's?

Back when the ground was shifting at NBC, Conan was often compared to David Letterman, who many would argue had the Tonight Show job stolen from him by Jay Leno, as well. Now Conan has more in common with another television personality: Heidi Klum. Klum, along with Tim Gunn and the rest of the gang, were in a similar position when Lifetime wrested Project Runway from Bravo's vise grip. The idea for Lifetime was to revamp its image as a platform for youthful original programming, rather than just a place where the name Park Overall still means something. But fans of the show revolted. Could Runway still be the same on a different network? To let the ratings tell it, the answer is no. This season's premiere attracted 2.9 million viewers, versus the 4.2 million who tuned in for the previous year's premiere. There are a host of possible explanations for the dip, of course, but given the timing, blaming the move to Lifetime seems the simplest.

Conan's upcoming move is not quite as perilous. Granted, TBS's brand isn't a strong one, but perhaps that works to his advantage. It's totally conceivable that Conan will become a ginger tentpole for a network that has spent the last few years trying to establish itself as a destination for comedy. It stands to reason that the move to basic cable will allow him the latitude he had in his Late Night time slot. NBC owns the intellectual rights to the Masturbating Bear, but Conan is full of such provocatively surreal characters, and if his young audience flocks to TBS to see them, it'll be a coup for the network.

But on the off chance the move doesn't succeed, if Conan's show doesn't work at its new home, where does he go? Would he move into a successful, if low-key stand-up career? Return to writing full time? Host a morning-zoo radio show? Whatever the next move would be, a failure at TBS would almost certainly spell the end of Conan O'Brien as an on-camera personality. He's pushing in all of his chips. We'll have to wait until November to see if Conan can return his career from tragic back to comic.