Conan's Baaaack... And Right Where He Belongs
Broadcast knocked him out, but on cable, Team Coco will be a hot contender
By Jon Lafayette -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/8/2010 12:01:00 AM
Based on 2009 revenue. Excludes promos & PSAs. Late Night is Monday-Sunday, 11 p.m.-2 a.m.
Source: The Nielsen Co.
Fox and ABC considered giving Conan a place to land, but Turner Broadcasting swooped in to give him a new show on TBS, which calls itself the Very Funny network. While O’Brien famously crashed and burned on broadcast, many TV observers expect Conan, which launches Nov. 8, to survive, or even thrive, in his new home on cable.
The rules are different on cable. As the wistful Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment president, told a Hollywood Radio & Television Society gathering recently, “On cable, we would’ve been able to have the guys on Lone Star take off their clothes, the show would’ve pulled 1.3 million viewers and we would’ve declared it a hit because that’s what Mad Men draws. We would’ve collected a few trophies too, and no one would’ve questioned it.”
With expectations different on cable, even if O’Brien’s fan base is limited, he can be successful. There are three good reasons to support such optimism.
1) Ad buyers like O’Brien enough to pay Turner broadcast prices for cable Conan.
Brian Hughes, VP, director of audience analysis at Magna Global, ! gures there are de! nitely enough viewers for Conan on cable to make this enterprise worthwhile, both for Turner and for sponsors. In a fragmenting late night cable universe, Conan doesn’t have to get the numbers NBC was used to in late night—which will suit him perfectly. “I don’t even know that they’re going to hold him to that broadcast standard,” says Hughes, who is estimating that Conan will draw a 1 rating, making it comparable to Comedy Central’s Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
“I think it’s going to be amazing,” says Donna Speciale, president, investment & activation and agency operations at media buyer MediaVest.
According to media buying sources, Turner is estimating that because of heavy sampling, Conan will attract about 1.5 million households to tune in during launch week. After that, when the excitement settles down, Turner expects about 1 million households per night.
Turner was aggressive on price, seeking $20,000 to $25,000 per spot on Conan, and even more during premiere week, when Turner sought closer to $100,000 for 30 seconds for opening night. After some huffing and puffing, Turner was able to get what it was looking for during the upfront. Sales have continued to be strong in scatter.
“They were trying to get what they felt he was getting in broadcast. That’s always what the top-tier cable networks are trying to do,” Speciale says. “They did a fair job. I think everyone’s aware it’s going to be a success.”
Ad spending on cable has been growing in late night. According to Nielsen, cable networks had $2.796 billion in late-night ad revenue in 2009, up from $2.524 billion in 2008 (see chart above). In the first half of this year, cable networks raked in $1.578 billion. Meanwhile on broadcast, late-night spending dropped last year thanks to the recession and the Leno-Conan shuffle on NBC, to $1.075 billion from $1.408 billion.
One question is whether Conan’s new show will further enlarge the roster of late-night advertisers on cable or steal dollars from Turner’s Adult Swim and Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report. “What Conan may do is attract more mainstream network advertisers, like packaged goods,” to late night, says Jeff Lucas, who sells Stewart and Colbert as executive VP of ad sales for the MTV Networks Entertainment Group. Lucas, who as head of latenight sales at NBC helped launch O’Brien’s Late Night, also thinks Turner’s push on price will help cable programmers. “They can join the network CPM club, because we already get network CPMs for those guys,” he says. “It’s only good for all of us.”
Buyers expect O’Brien to be friendly when it comes to integrating brands into his new show. “He’s got strong opinions about how to do things, and I think his involvement is there as long as it keeps the essence of his brand and his show,” MediaVest’s Speciale says. “If you’re buying Conan, that’s what you want.” AT&T has been integrated into tune-ads that have been running, and Diet Coke was a sponsor of an online preview of the new show last week.
Speciale also praises the timing of Conan’s launch as propitious, given the current " urry of tech-toy launches—including Google TV and several iPad competitors—that Conan’s audience will crave. “Those [advertisers] are very much into that 18-to-34 segment, so there are new advertisers that can lend themselves to that [late-night] space,” she says.
Conan’s fans are younger than the group that traditionally tunes into The Tonight Show before turning in for the evening. And those fans are more likely to follow him to TBS, says Magna Global’s Hughes.
“When he was at the helm [of Tonight], the median age went down a few years . . . part of the problem is that broadcast late night is generally an older-skewing environment, which is why Jay Leno is generally successful there. TBS having a median age in the mid-30s is a much better fit,” Hughes says.
Turner sees that audience as an opportunity. “There are a lot of young viewers there, and it’s become a really robust environment for what I would describe as relevant comedy,” says Michael Wright, executive VP, head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies.
TBS also has George Lopez’s year-old Lopez Tonight in late night. Multiple sources say Lopez’s show was set to be canceled prior to O’Brien’s arrival due to low ratings; instead, the network pushed Lopez back an hour, where it will be promoted by O’Brien each night. A TBS spokesperson denied there was any talk at the network of canceling Lopez.
Lopez earned a 1.09 household rating his first week on the air, drawing an average of 1.1 million viewers in the 18-to-49 demo. That audience has dwindled. During the third-quarter, Lopez drew a 0.56 household rating and 804,000 viewers in the 18-49 demo.
According to Wright, much of Conan’s audience will come from viewers watching TBS shows such as Family Guy, The Office and Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. There will also be some viewers who aren’t watching TV at that hour. “For all I know they’re playing Halo or watching something on demand. There are probably some very loyal Conan viewers who aren’t even watching at all at 11 o’clock,” Wright says. The rest of the viewers will come from a variety of sources. “I don’t think the show is going to take a bite out of any particular program,” he adds.
Lucas says he doesn’t expect to lose Stewart’s or Colbert’s exceedingly loyal audience to Conan. “They’ll get some sampling, as they should. It’s a new guy and a new space in cable. But you know what? I have complete faith in our guys, and they’re strong and they’re creative and I think there’s room for everybody,” Lucas says. Lucas adds that the current attention to late night on cable could bring more viewers to Comedy Central.
Back in 2008, when O’Brien was on at 12:30 a.m. on NBC, the median age of his audience was 47.2 years. In the first four weeks of his Tonight Show, it was 46.9. For the first four weeks of this season, Leno’s Tonight has a median age of 56.1.
Wright believes Conan’s new audience will be balanced between men and women with a median age slightly older than TBS’ current average of 35. “In any event, that’s a wonderful, young audience,” he says.
3) On TBS, expect Conan to get his creative mojo back.
“Speaking as a fan of his old show, I think he’ll go back to doing more provocative, edgy stuff that he used to do,” says Magna’s Hughes. “He’s not trying to fit into that Tonight Show paradigm that had been established over so many years. So I think we’ll see more of the classic Conan—the 12:30 Conan, if you will.”
When he was doing Tonight, O’Brien was criticized for being “stubborn about not being willing to broaden the appeal of his show” by Dick Ebersol, the NBC Sports chairman who has also been involved in the network’s late-night programming over the years. NBC wanted O’Brien to make changes to appeal to viewers in Central Time Zone markets like Chicago.
TBS doesn’t plan to tell Conan how to do his show. “Conan’s been doing this for 17 years, and he has so honed his act and his voice,” says Wright. “They don’t need me to tell them how to be funny or how to make that television show.
“I hope what the audience gets and sees is Conan unfettered and unworried. There’s nobody peering over this guy’s shoulder saying do it this way or that way, or worse, do it this way or else,” adds Wright. “What Conan has is a huge amount of support around him right now. And the message he’s getting from us creatively is we 100% believe in what you do.”
Wright says that when he watches rehearsals he feels blessed to have O’Brien on the network. “I sit there and think, man, this is fantastic. Here’s my note: ‘Do more of that.’”
Critics also hope it will be a loose, funny Conan on TBS. “My hope is that Conan does something entirely different from both Late Night and Tonight,” says Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com. “I want him to maintain the same comic sensibility, as well as the heartfelt quality of those final Tonight episodes, but the world needs another traditionally structured late-night talk show like I need a hole in my head. Conan got much better as an interviewer as he went along, but comedy has always been his strength, and I’d like to see a show that has more comedy in it—even, to borrow a concept from Conan’s Late Night successor, if that means involving the guests in the comedy, rather than just sitting down for 10 minutes to run through rehearsed anecdotes.”
The Bottom Line on ‘Conan’
Turner is making a humongous bet on Conan. Airing four nights a week gives the show a bigger footprint than other original series, so it’s likely to generate incremental ad revenue. It might also be a bargaining chip in negotiations with cable operators. Still, it’s unlikely to have a big impact on the finances of TBS, Turner Broadcasting or parent Time Warner.
In the third quarter, TBS was the fourth-ranked cable network among adults 18 to 49, but its viewership was down 9%. Among 18-to-34 yearolds, it was down 52%. So TBS is really counting on Conan to have a halo effect over its entire schedule, including Glory Days, which begins Nov. 16.
“I think Conan becomes something of a lighthouse with the harbor being TBS,” says Wright. “Whether it’s the viewer who doesn’t know us or the viewer that doesn’t know us well, you come to that [show] and you start developing a better sense of what TBS is.” Wright believes having Conan on the TBS schedule will also help attract more comedy talent to the network.
So, will it work? “It’s a big investment, but they got pretty solid pricing and I am guessing the ratings guarantees were realistic,” says David Bank, managing director, global media and internet research at RBC Capital Markets. “The big question is, will there be a ‘ratings spillover’? Remember, TBS has been a terrible ratings performer. Could Conan be something that lifts the schedule across the board? That is the real question.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette
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