Watch His Cable-Bashing Opener

Advice for Conan O'Brien: Stop Putting Down Cable

Tuning In: Brian Steinberg on the TV Season and Changes to the TV Business

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First taste of New Coco: Conan O' Brien kept the beard he's been growing ever since he departed from NBC's "Tonight Show" earlier this year. But there's something else he should consider shaving -- all the jokes about how he's been banished to basic cable and the tumult he once endured at the Peacock's hands.

Mr. O' Brien's new late-night show -- this time on Time Warner's TBS -- debuted last night at 11 p.m, complete with many of the staples that made Mr. O' Brien's "Late Night" a success: off-kilter humor, zingers from Andy Richter and a skew toward younger males. (Actor Seth Rogen made it plain Conan's no longer on NBC when he peppered his appearance with obscenities, which were bleeped out, and slang references to women's breasts.) While this program was no doubt meant to be a celebration, it contained far too much self-flagellation over the comedian's departure from broadcast's ranks to make people feel good and forget the worries of the day.

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A skit that started the show focused on the passage of time between Mr. O' Brien's exit from NBC and his TBS debut last night, depicting Mr. O' Brien struggling as a party clown, a Burger King server and a homebody.

"This is an exciting night," Mr. O' Brien said during his monologue. "I'm glad to be on cable. The truth is, I've dreamed of being a talk-show host on basic cable ever since I was 46." Ba-da-bump.

Even the mention of a guest for tonight's program -- Jack McBrayer, who hails from NBC's "30 Rock" -- drew a grimace from the red-haired late-night host.

Yeah, yeah, we know: Conan's arrival at TBS is one of the most over-chronicled events on TV these days. NBC made him a deal for "The Tonight Show" and moved Jay Leno to accommodate. Then NBC switched up the deal and tried to put Jay Leno back in the time slot Mr. O' Brien had always wanted. And then the two parted acrimoniously, leading to this new show on TBS.

Many viewers, however, no longer make a distinction between broadcast and cable networks. And executives at Time Warner's Turner cable operation regularly point out, quite sensibly, that cable's share of audience is growing -- helped by the fact that cable's scripted programs are of a quality that broadcast rivals often don't match. So we wonder why Mr. O' Brien can't simply move on and focus on the stuff that got him attention in the pre-"Tonight Show" days: a subversive, cerebral sense of humor that gave rise to such durable bits as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

You can't help but wonder if some of the marketers who are backing the show -- at higher-than-usual prices for cable -- want to hear the host they're endorsing denigrate the medium transmitting him. AT&T and 20th Century Fox have ponied up for interesting ads that play off the show and aim to keep viewers sitting through the ad breaks. How might they feel upon seeing the guy they're sponsoring tell the audience the show is second-rate because it airs on basic cable? Even the name of his band -- "The Basic Cable Band" -- ought to be rethought in this context.

Perhaps this is just a one-night thing. Perhaps Mr. O' Brien will banish all mention of NBC and "Tonight" from his banter. And he probably should. Because audiences would most likely rather watch a host looking forward instead of one peering over his shoulder.

Olbermann, overblown: Rather than racing to come up with autopsies of the thankfully-brief affair d'Olbermann at MSNBC, media outlets would have been better off ignoring the thing altogether. Mr. Olbermann isn't leaving MSNBC. He admitted his contributions to Democratic political candidates could have been handled in a better fashion. It's amazing that in an era when so many media people wring their hands over the steady but unenlightening rat-a-tat-tat cable-news cycle, so many rushed to cover this nonstory and ended up adding lots of steam but not much else.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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