Conan: dare to be different

In a few months, so long as the Earth keeps turning at its current rate of 1 RPD,  Conan O’Brien will come back to late night television with a show on Fox. Initial ratings will be high, because we want to see what all the fuss was about. It will be like the #iPad trending topics on Twitter, which are now below the radar. A better analogy is the spike his ratings on the Tonight Show received during his spat with the network. We all wanted to see if he’d burn the house down. What we got was a Skynyrd cover band with Beck Hansen and more cow bell.

The challenge will be making the show a long term success. Chevy Chase couldn’t do it. Arsenio Hall couldn’t do it. Joan Rivers couldn’t do it, and she had talent and brains. For all but the last year of the Arsenio Hall Show, the only competition was Johnny Carson or Jay Leno. O’Brien will be in a battle royal with Leno, a firmly entrenched David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, and the brilliant tag team of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He’ll be on a network with fewer affiliates and little built-in audience. All this in an age of Tivo, expanded cable options, and Bittorrent. The odds of successfully navigating a late night talk show field are three thousand seven hundred and twenty to one.

How can O’Brien compete? The same-old same-old just will not do. We do not need another copy of the same tired formula: Announcer introduces host; Host tells lame jokes pulled from headlines to stories he hasn’t read (and if he’s Leno follows each joke with a “Get it?”); Host does a new version of the same old repeat gag (or if he’s Leno, reads stuff other people mailed him at their expense); Host interviews guest to promote new movie/TV show/album/concert tour; band that’s playing SNL later this week comes out and plays their latest overexposed single on too small a stage. Lather Rise Repeat.

O’Brien is funnier and smarter than his broadcast competition, but that alone will have little bearing on his success. Certainly the formula has to go, and O’Brien’s creativity will help him do this. He has one other potential advantage. Fox has no programming after 10:00 pm. Most Fox affiliates do their local news at 10:00. This leaves 11:00 open for O’Brien. Will he take it?

There are lessons to take from Jay Leno’s lack of success at 10:00. NBC was happy with Leno’s low ratings because the show was remarkably cheap to produce. But the local NBC affiliates were unhappy because low ratings at 10:00 led to lower ratings for their local news, which contributed to O’Brien’s low ratings at 11:30. This means viewers have little loyalty to a particular late night news program. This further suggests that many viewers would be just as happy watching no news than just any news. There’s the seed for O’Brien’s new audience.

If Fox and O’Brien go with 11:00, they will also be going head to head with Comedy Central. That’s a smaller audience, but generally more educated, more affluent, and thus more desirable for advertisers. These people don’t watch the 11:00 Action News Team with Ken Doll Hair Guy, Black Guy on sports, and Blonde With Big Tits on weather. But Stewart and Colbert are tough. They’re not just good, they’re very good. Conan O’Brien would need Ricky Gervais, Louis CK, and Emo Phillips on in perpetual rotation to take a good portion of that audience. Perhaps that’s an audience they will have to forfeit.

I think Fox will gamble on an 11:00 show. I think Conan O’Brien will abandon much of the current formula, but not all of it. Expect to still hear current affairs jokes, better than the other stand-up hosts, yet without the deeper context and irony we expect from Stewart and Colbert. Expect the same guests, but perhaps fewer on to peddle a particular product. I know I’d rather see Meryl Streep interviewed when she doesn’t have to pretend It’s Complicated isn’t crap. Expect a more progressive collection of musical acts and comedians, many of whom you’ve never heard of. Finally, don’t expect Andy Richter.

That doesn’t seem like pandering, so it doesn’t sound like Fox. O’Brien will need some thugs negotiating for him.