In 10 years as a television executive, Steve Koonin had never received fan mail. Until now.
The president of Turner Entertainment Networks said he's received more than 6,000 notes from Conan O'Brien fans thanking him for hiring the former "Tonight" host for a TBS talk show that starts in November.
Koonin is seizing upon the move, a genuine surprise at the time, to remake a network that is often overlooked by cultural taste-makers.
"It wasn't hiring an available talent," Koonin said. "It was building an idea."
The idea is to use O'Brien and George Lopez to build a late-night franchise that has youthful appeal, taking advantage of the Jay Leno and David Letterman audiences — and the hosts themselves — being relatively old by TV standards. He'll use the folk hero status his "Team Coco" fans gave O'Brien during his battle with NBC to make the comic the face of TBS.
Already in the works is a plan to rerun the four hours of O'Brien's show each week late on Friday nights, inviting fans to connect to the show and each other through Twitter and other social media.
TBS is available in almost as many homes these days as the broadcast networks but lacks a real profile, perhaps because its base is in Atlanta and its schedule has long been dominated by reruns. Fewer people watch Comedy Central, and fewer people can get it in their homes, but its stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert get more attention than TBS' show biz dynamo Tyler Perry.
O'Brien can begin changing that.
"They want to get the buzz," said veteran TV researcher Steve Sternberg. "The buzz is important in that advertisers pay attention to buzz. TBS is already one of the highest-rated cable networks. This is only going to enhance that."
Given that two advertisers have already taken the unusual step of calling Koonin at home to make sure there would be room for them on O'Brien's show, the perception is starting to work.
Koonin was influential in Turner's decision to give sister stations TBS and TNT their own identities by having one concentrate on comedy and the other on drama. With Holly Hunter on "Saving Grace" and Kyra Sedgwick on "The Closer," TNT has done a better job than TBS in getting major Hollywood talent to consider it as a place to work.
Again, O'Brien is being counted on to change that.
"For our people in Los Angeles, it's a lot easier getting conversations today," Koonin said.
TBS hopes to bring more original programming to its schedule but reruns of "Seinfeld," ''Everybody Loves Raymond" and the like will also be there. Broadcast networks are proving how difficult it is to maintain all-original schedules, Koonin said.
TBS is currently airing "Family Guy" reruns in the time slot that will lead in to O'Brien's show, which should draw a like-minded audience.
Koonin was recently in New York for an advertiser presentation by Tru TV, another network he supervises. He's an unusual television executive in that his background is not TV. He joined Turner in 2000 to supervise TNT after spending 14 years at Coca-Cola, with his last job as vice president of consumer marketing.
Being out of the regular Hollywood loop didn't hurt Koonin in getting the O'Brien deal done. In fact, it probably helped, said Gavin Polone, the comic's manager. Things that might have taken days or weeks in a typical Hollywood negotiation took 45 minutes because Koonin was available and able to make decisions, he said.
"He didn't have to prove anything but what was proved was that he does as exactly as he says, which is unusual in this industry," Polone said. "Because he is an outsider, he brings with him a level of integrity that is often lacking in many of the executives that I have encountered during my career."
For more than two months after O'Brien left NBC's "The Tonight Show," most people — including Koonin — assumed he'd wind up at Fox. Koonin didn't even bother looking into it. But as two months went by and it remained unclear whether Fox could convince all of its affiliates to take O'Brien's show, Koonin decided to look into it. All he needed was to secure Lopez's agreement that he was fine with the idea of moving his own talk show an hour later to accommodate O'Brien.
"To get something done where there is nothing but positive feelings on all sides is the most satisfying thing," Koonin said. "We want to be elegant in the way we do business."
Koonin has a son and daughter who are both O'Brien fans. The youngest, 20-year-old Amy, belongs to a "Team Coco" website.
Now he's a hero at home.
TBS is owned by Time Warner Inc.; Fox is a unit of News Corp.; NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric Co.