‘Conan’ tests fan loyalties with new network, time
Sunday, November 7, 2010
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Timing is key in comedy and for at least one formerly unemployed talk-show host. While Conan O’Brien’s departure from “Tonight” was part of a sorry mess, it was exquisitely in sync with the growing influence of social media.
Team Coco’s adroit use of Twitter and Facebook in the months after O’Brien gave up his network TV platform gave him a direct pipeline to fans and new admirers, keeping him and his comic sensibility in a welcoming, computer-generated spotlight.
With Monday’s debut of his TBS show “Conan” (10 p.m. Central Time), O’Brien will learn how much being an online sensation can help foster late-night success in cable TV and in a new time slot.
“Let’s be clear about this: Conan O’Brien’s show will succeed if it’s good, and it will fail if it sucks,” said Josh Bernoff, co-author of “Empowered,” about using social networks in business. “Social media cannot change that. What it can change is the speed with which the message gets spread.”
There’s no question the online universe drastically affected O’Brien’s post-“Tonight” life.
“If this had happened to me 10 years ago, I’d probably be in the airport handing out literature,” he says, not a trace of laughter in his voice.
O’Brien says his abrupt exit from NBC after only seven months on “Tonight” — and some 16 years with the network — had its high and low points, “but the biggest thing it did was introduce me in a really visceral way to my fan base.”
With an NBC settlement agreement that included an extended ban on TV appearances, O’Brien found he could keep his followers intrigued — and maybe cultivate new ones — with 140-character messages on Twitter and his Facebook postings.
Before he was caught in NBC’s implosion, he was “sort of Luddite,” O’Brien says. Afterward, he was a believer.
“I was supposed to be in the wilderness, but I carried on this relationship that in some ways seemed more meaningful than any relationship I’ve had in television before,” he said.
The question now, he says, is whether he can marry the familiar TV talk-show format with the performance freedom he felt in his final days on “Tonight,” and which he extended online and into his nationwide comedy-concert tour.
“There’s a feeling of let’s experiment, let’s try. ... There’s this chance to rewrite the rules,” O’Brien said. “Not everything is going to work, but there’s this chance to try something new.”
The follow-up question: Will online fans, who tend to be younger and want media on their own terms, tune in for “Conan” or wait to see it online? TBS is making it easy, announcing that each show will be posted the morning after it airs, but that means the all-important ratings take a hit.
But the immediate goal is to drum up any and all interest in “Conan,” and the network and O’Brien’s representatives, dubbed Team Coco, are reaching his potential audience where it lives.
While “Conan” has received typical TV promotion, including high-profile spots during Major League Baseball playoff games that aired on TBS, the show has also been hyped on the TeamCoco.com website.
A “Coco Cam” offered live video from O’Brien’s office and a video was posted with what was described as a four-minute look at the upcoming show. In both cases, the promise exceeded the reality: The office peep hole that showed stairwell action was taken down after 24 hours and the “Show Zero” turned out to be a promo and a paean to a sponsor’s soft drink.
But there’s nothing empty about the connection O’Brien established with fans online after he left NBC’s “Tonight” rather than move his show back a half-hour to allow Jay Leno to return to late night.
“Four days away from my new show. Tomorrow, I begin to prepare,” O’Brien tweeted this week. Getting the message: his 1.8 million Twitter followers and the 1 million-plus friends on Facebook. Then there’s the Team Coco website, giving the public a chance to weigh in and, importantly, get show details including the guest list. TBS offers another chance for an O’Brien fix on its website.
Consider that O’Brien averaged 2.5 million viewers during his “Tonight” tenure, a number that would be welcomed as hefty for TBS, and he’s on his way to triumph if he converts his online base to viewership.
The bar for success isn’t overwhelmingly high, said analyst Steve Sternberg. If O’Brien can increase the under 1 million nightly viewers George Lopez was getting for TBS at 11 p.m. (Lopez is now bumped to midnight ET), then “Conan” will “probably be considered successful,” Sternberg said.
By comparison, Leno and David Letterman each have been drawing around 3.5 million viewers.
As for the show itself, O’Brien acknowledges that it will hew to the familiar late-night format.
“It’s talk, it’s comedy, it’s guests,” he said. “Some people say, ‘What’s the new show gonna be? Well, it’s gonna be me. You know who I am. ... I’m going to come out, I’ll still tell jokes to the crowd, do comedy, try anything that day we can think of that makes us laugh.”
When it comes to his competition, which includes former NBC family member Leno, CBS’ Letterman, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, O’Brien insists he is first and foremost competing with himself. As his wife, Liza O’Brien, tells him, “You’re the hardest on yourself.”
What about the possibility of celebrity booking wars? Veteran TV executive Garth Ancier sees that as a key issue.
“The biggest challenge for Conan isn’t the most obvious. It will be sustaining good guest bookings after the first month or so, when all of your favors have been called in,” Ancier said in an e-mail.
“If you are promoting a movie, where do you place your ‘chips’ with so many other competing shows. ... The rules will evolve, but generally Jay and Dave won’t take a celeb who’s done the other’s show ... and I’m sure the same rule will apply to celebs who choose to do Conan first,” he said.
O’Brien is sanguine on the topic. As he proved online, he’s selling himself and his comedy, not his guests.
“I’ve made a lot of friends over the years. I’ve always been pretty much able to have most of the people I wanted on the show. ... I don’t think that’s going to change,” O’Brien said, adding, “I think, really, these shows live or die not by (the booking) but what you do on the show.”
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