Cable Show 2012: Conan O'Brien on the New Age of TV: 'Adapt or Die'

Talk show host says ‘Tonight Show' debacle forced him to bet on industry's future direction
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Complete Coverage: Cable Show 2012

Boston -- When Conan O'Brien was forced out of The Tonight Show in 2010, he had to
choose not just whether to stay at NBC but decide where he thought the
television industry was headed, the talk show host told CNN host Piers Morgan
during the general session here Wednesday morning.

"I felt like I was standing with one foot in traditional
broadcasting and one foot in this new world that we're all trying to figure
out," O'Brien said. "And the divide ran right between me and I had to make a
jump one way or the other."

As everyone knows, O'Brien chose to make the jump to cable
and TBS, where he hosts his show for a much smaller, if younger and more
technically savvy audience, than he did on network TV. O'Brien said he and his
team have spent the last year and a half trying to figure out how to navigate
that new world of social TV.

"I never pretended to know anything about any of this," he
said. "The whole experience I went through with The Tonight Show, we saw this grassroots movement just spring up,
which I didn't frankly even know existed. I was forced to embrace this world
and figure out how to use it."

O'Brien's first discovery was one often preached by TV
executives -- it's all about content. "People constantly try and overthink the
Web and I think funny content is funny content," he said.

While he said the TV broadcast still gets most of his focus,
he was surprised at how much focus has to be put into making digital-only
content to promote the show in a way that engages the audience.

"What you're doing with social media is constantly trying to
figure out ways to create a symbiotic relationship," O'Brien said. "It's not
just driving people on social networks to your television show. Yes, you want
to do that. But you want to get people in the TV emotionally involved in what
you're doing on Twitter and Facebook."

That happened recently when Will Ferrell chose to announce
the Anchorman sequel on Conan in a surprise appearance that the show's digital team distributed online
via several video clips in advance, which ended up driving viewers to Conan.
O'Brien said it underscored how much the business has changed from when he
started in 1993 and "the obsession was never give anything away."

"The days of ‘I only want people to experience me at 11
o'clock on TBS,' those days are over," he said. "The audience is too fractured,
they're too distracted, and a whole generation is growing up that doesn't watch
television that way."

O'Brien praised his experience at TBS and said the biggest
difference between working at that network and NBC is how quickly ideas can be
pushed through on cable. And he has no regrets about the jump he chose.

"My attitude the last couple of years was adapt or die," he
said. "I chose I think this is where it is going. The last year and a half has
just been a complete -- for me, anyway -- affirmation that that's the way to go."

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