I finally got to the Conan story in the NY Times mag from this past Sunday, and I’m glad I did–it’s a good one. Same as his Tonight Show predecessor did 17 or so years before, O’Brien has really made an effort to reach out to the NBC affiliates before stepping onto the Tonight Show set.
In his new L.A. mega-mansion, O’Brien has a map of America crisscrossed with lines that show his path to visit the various affiliates across America.
“That’s what I’ve been doing the past two months,” he says. “that’s why, as nice as [my new mega-mansion] is, it was so important that I went to see the affiliates. It’s good to remember that ‘The Tonight Show’ is not just shown in New York and L.A.”
NBC affiliate GMs I’ve spoken to say he was gracious and, of course, funny when visiting the station. O’Brien has obviously learned from Jay Leno that strong affiliate relations will play a large part in deciding his success on Tonight.
Writes Lynn Hirschberg:
Network television comprises a web of stations that have pledged their allegiance to a particular company and its programming slate. “There really is no NBC,” Leno told me. “There are the affiliates that own NBC. So, you go see them and say, ‘Hey, here’s what I plan to do.’ And they say, ‘We like you.’ America’s a football - whoever controls the ball, controls the game.”
Leno speaks from experience. In 1992, NBC gave him “The Tonight Show” over David Letterman partly because he had the staunch backing of the affiliates. (He visited them; Letterman didn’t.) Wooing the affiliates is not unlike garnering support during a presidential campaign, with particular attention paid to the cities and states that don’t understand or favor the candidate on offer. “They never really liked Conan in the Southeast,” Rick Ludwin said. “And we strongly suggested that he visit those stations.”
Even before “Late Night” ended, O’Brien was doing two shows on Thursday and flying on Friday to meet the affiliates. He’d visit two cities a day, often with Jeff Ross, who will be the executive producer of “The Tonight Show.” “I felt like Lyndon Johnson in the hill country, running a grass-roots campaign,” O’Brien said, as his daughter came to say goodnight. “In places like Oklahoma City, everyone was wearing Conan wigs and they brought a Clydesdale out of a truck. I grabbed a cowboy hat and rode in circles in front of the station. There were cheerleaders doing cheers for me and banners with my name on them. I kept thinking, I came into show business through the back door of ‘S.N.L.’ and ‘The Simpsons,’ and now I’m in the carnival. Which I love. If you want to host ‘The Tonight Show,’ you need to go to Kansas City and Cleveland and Milwaukee and San Jose and Oklahoma City. There’s something about the show that does belong to those people.”