Ted Turner would love this.
He would love watching Conan O’Brien, guitar in hand, crooning and cracking jokes as the audience’s cheers ring off the century-old balconies of the Hammerstein Ballroom here in New York City. O’Brien, who stuck it to the man and came out on top. O’Brien, the cult hero, the folk hero, just like Ted!
He would love that these aren’t even members of Team Coco, and this isn’t a stop on O’Brien’s post–Tonight Show Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television comedy tour. No, these are jaded ad buyers and media types, here at the annual Turner Entertainment upfront—a spring event staged to excite advertisers enough to buy commercial time “up front,” before the fall TV season.
Illustration by Nathan Fox
Perhaps they came this morning hoping only that the coffee and bagels might awaken them enough to preview new shows by TBS and its more serious sister, TNT. But gazing down on them, their faces aglow from the bright lights and big screens of the stage, it looks like they might be having . . . fun.
Fun! That’s why Turner, the man-child who would jump up and down on executives’ desks like a human exclamation mark, got into TV in the first place. How much fun O’Brien is having, though, is up for debate. He flew in from the Minneapolis stop of his tour to rock out here on two hours of sleep before jetting on to Chicago. But if O’Brien is tired, it doesn’t show. He was here early this morning, rehearsing, and now he’s putting everything he’s got into his first official appearance as a TBS employee. After all, he needs these ad buyers to go back to clients such as Applebee’s and Budweiser abuzz about his show. He’s TBS’s bridge to the big time—but the network will need the ad dollars to prove it.
With O’Brien, TBS has toppled one of the last bastions of broadcast: late night. And Turner, who once tried to woo Johnny Carson away from NBC, must love that. That is, one imagines that Ted Turner would love all these things—if he were still in charge of his namesake networks, headquartered in Atlanta. But he hasn’t been for almost a decade, when he was pushed out in the ill-fated Time Warner–AOL merger. And that, as it turns out for TBS, is a good thing.
It seems that the gap-toothed maverick whose vision bred TBS—the first indie cable network to broadcast to all fifty states on satellite—lacked foresight when it came to what his baby needed most: a niche. And if he were still at the helm, none of this might have come true. No upfront, no original sitcoms, no late night, no number one ranking on Mediaweek’s Cable Hot List. No comedic crown jewel, bobbing his copper top as he and his band riff off “On the Road Again”:
My own show again
On any network, even Oxygen
I know you think that channel’s only for women,
But I’d change my sex to have my own show again
Instead, it’s thanks to a portly, bespectacled man named Steve Koonin that O’Brien won’t have to go to such lengths. As Turner Entertainment president, the Atlanta native and University of Georgia grad has transformed the house that Turner built into the powerhouse on display today. Snagging the quirky redhead out front is just his latest—albeit his biggest—triumph.
More mensch than magnate, Koonin drinks in the crowd’s hoots and hollers with delight backstage. He’s even proud that some guy in the back of the auditorium keeps shouting, “Play ‘Free Bird’!” (“That’s the big time, you know? Jerry Seinfeld gets hecklers; we don’t get hecklers!”) And why not? After eight years, Koonin is a giant leap closer to his goal: to mold TBS into the funniest place on television.