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Conan O'Brien finds late-night home on TBS: Will he get last laugh?

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Some see in the TBS deal an opportunity for O'Brien to shed the strictures of the broadcast networks and rediscover his inner edge. “At TBS, he'll be free to say the things that [cable TV's] Bill Maher, George Lopez, et al, get away with,” says media expert and TV blogger Debra Caruso, in an e-mail. “He won't be marginalized; he'll be unleashed.”

Plus, she adds, he probably won't have to follow the behest of network interests who want him to shill for network programming. “He's probably also tired of the network hierarchy and the allegiance that must be paid to network programming and movies produced by parent companies,” says Ms. Caruso. If O'Brien had gone to Fox, as many speculators thought he would, "he would have been forced to promote everything that came out of that company's studio,” she adds.

But the TBS deal has its own set of challenges, many observers note.

“It seems a definite step down for Conan,” says Wheeler Dixon, a University of Nebraska media professor, in an e-mail. “It's a better fit than Fox. But this is a lose-lose strategy.”

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