It’s been several years (basically since I got married in 1999) since I’ve watched a TV program with any regularity. Recently that’s changed — there is now one show I check out most episodes of: The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.
I was a mild fan of Conan’s show back in my single days, when I was still energetic enough to stay up that late. More recently, I’ve been watching his new program on Hulu, a rebroadcasting website partly owned by NBC. Conan’s hosting of the venerable late-night warhorse began June 1, and has aired every weekday since save for a week at the end of June where it was bumped for Wimbledon coverage. And I have to admit, I’ve been enjoying it for the most part.
But I’ve also been hearing about the revamped show’s problems in the ratings. After the first week, Conan started getting beaten pretty regularly in the overnight Nielsen viewership numbers by CBS and The Late Show with David Letterman. Until the last week or so, he was still winning the race for viewers aged 18-34 (the ones advertisers seem to want the most), but recently he’s been falling behind Letterman there as well. And there’s another cloud looming on the horizon: the previous Tonight Show host, Jay Leno, is returning to NBC in September with a Tonight Show-style talk/variety show to air at 10 pm Eastern & Pacific/9 pm Central on weekdays (Conan comes on at 11:35 Eastern & Pacific/10:35 Central). Leno’s deal will also be based in Los Angeles, which means that his show and Conan’s could end up competing for the same guests. All in all, it doesn’t look good right now, and pundits in the media, from NPR to Perez Hilton, is wringing their hands about whether Conan will survive this sudden downturn in his fortunes.
They are; I’m not. Remember, you heard it here first: Conan O’Brien is going to be just fine. In fact, I think that a few years from now, people are going to have forgotten he and his show were ever in trouble.
How can I say this with such confidence (some might say hubris)? For several reasons:
1. Conan has a different personality from his rivals, and people haven’t gotten used to it yet. I’m old enough to remember when Letterman — Conan’s one-time predecessor, current rival, and obvious trailblazer — was first starting out on national TV in the early ’80s. You can’t imagine what a shock it was, after an hour of the strait-laced, goofy-but-essentially-dignified Johnny Carson, to stay tuned and watch this gangly, gap-toothed guy put on Velcro suits, laugh at his own jokes and riff with Paul Shaffer. It was a massively different vibe between the two shows, and the two hosts. But by 1992, when Carson was getting ready to retire, he made no bones about how Letterman was his preferred choice to replace him. (NBC chose Leno instead, and reportedly Carson never forgave them for it. Letterman made his feelings known by jumping to CBS and becoming a permanent thorn in the Peacock Network’s side.) Carson, and the American people had gotten used to Letterman and his act.
Well, Conan already has 16 years of exposure to the public, ever since he replaced Letterman in the 12:35 slot for NBC. But there’s a larger, older audience at 11:35 that still has to adjust to him. He’s different from Leno in that he’s less in-your-face, less likely to make the conventional joke, more given to physical comedy. As obvious as the Letterman influences are, he’s hardly a carbon copy of him, either — less cynical and less sophisticated (his penchant for slightly-naughty humor doesn’t appeal to me, but others my age and younger will see it differently). He has a certain endearing geekiness (even as he makes fun of nerds, you can see the fingers he’s pointing back at himself) and an ignorance of the usual distance between interviewer and subject that late-night TV hasn’t seen since Steve Allen. It’s just a different feel, one that has led many to call him “an acquired taste.” But given enough time, people will acquire it.
And one major thing Conan has on his side is time, because:
2. He’s a LOT younger than his rivals. Letterman is 62 years old — not exactly doddering, but still old for a five-day-a-week, recorded-live national TV program and the grind involved — and has had health problems in recent years. Leno is 59, and looks older. Conan O’Brien is only 46, and his sidekick Andy Richter is 42. The oldest person, the eminence grise of Conan’s program is bandleader Max Weinberg, who’s over a year younger than Leno!
That may not make a lot of difference immediately, but it will over time. For one thing, there’s that grind I mentioned — doing five TV shows every week is a tiring business. (Why do you think Carson took so many vacations?) Come 2013, Letterman will be 66 and Leno 63, but viewers will still expect them to keep up the same energy they had twenty years before. Ain’t gonna happen. Meanwhile, Conan will still be a sprightly 50, Richter will be 46 — and you can just imagine them laughing behind their hands at the geezers wheezing and trying to keep up. He’ll still be around when they might be long gone.
Furthermore, TV is a young person’s business, with an advertiser’s focus on younger viewers (remember that 18-34 demographic), and Conan has his rivals beat on that score. Who would you rather watch, all things being equal — someone your own age or your parents’ age. I know for a fact that when the Supermodel was weighing pros and cons on how to vote for President last year, a major selling point for Barack Obama was that he was only 47 (the Supermodel is a young 38) and thus more likely to understand the issues of her generation, whereas John McCain was 72, older even than her mom and dad. (She voted for McCain eventually because she agreed more with his stances on the issues, but not with a lot of enthusiasm.) And she’s smarter and more analytical than most people. Younger watchers are naturally going to gravitate toward a younger host — it may take time, but it will happen.
3. There’s no real Plan B for NBC if they decide to make another change. Keep in mind that Conan was offered the Tonight Show desk in 2004, as part of the contract NBC gave him to keep him from jumping to another network a la Letterman, and that Leno agreed at that point to step aside. (Leno got the upcoming 10 pm gig for the same reason — ABC was already floating offers. Don’t think NBC isn’t scarred by Letterman’s move to CBS.) So this has been in the works for five years. Furthermore, NBC produces the show (with O’Brien’s company, Conaco), and it’s based on the lot of Universal Studios (Universal owns NBC). This isn’t an outside-produced, interchangeable half-hour sitcom that the NBC brass can just cancel if the Nielsen numbers drop too far. They’ve made a long-term commitment to making this work; they have to see it through.
Or put another way, they’re forced to be patient. Because what’s the alternative — cancel The Tonight Show? It’s been around since 1954 — you don’t throw away a history like that, especially not when you’re the third-rated network and you’d be ceding your whole audience for that time slot to the #1 network (CBS). Bump Conan for another host? There’s no one available who’s got more late-night experience than Conan except Leno and Letterman, both already locked into other deals. Even if they were willing, Letterman probably wouldn’t return to NBC at gunpoint. And returning Leno to his previous spot would leave NBC to fill five of their 22 prime-time hours with mid-season replacements — not the way to turn a network around. Try to revamp the show in midstream? Everyone knows that’s the equivalent of spray-painting “FAIL” across the front of the studio set … and even the folks who greenlighted that turgid Bionic Woman remake aren’t stupid enough to do that. They have to sit tight and see if Conan can turn int around in the next couple of years. Which I think he will, because …
4. Conan has been through this before. You may not recall that when Conan took over Late Night back in ’93, he had NEVER hosted a TV show before. He’d been a writer (for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, among other things) and worked with some improv comedy groups. Nobody knew how he’d do with one of NBC’s most important properties … and in the beginning, he didn’t do well. Ratings were so low at one point, a rumor circulated that O’Brien was on a week-to-week basis with the network. Letterman, smelling blood in the water, began to put together a rival 12:35 show for CBS, which would eventually become The Late Late Show.
Sixteen years later, Conan’s still here. See, he’s dealt with all the media attention, all the naysayers, the affiliates and executives who wanted to chop off his head and mount it on a pike as a warning to others. And he did it back when he was 30 years old and had never hosted anything bigger than a theater sketch-comedy presentation in Chicago during a writers’ strike. He’s been blooded, been challenged, and he’s won. He’s got what in sports we call “playoff experience” — he knows what it’s going to take to succeed, because he’s done it. It doesn’t take Nostradamus to figure he’ll do it again.
So I’m not just looking forward to catching Conan O’Brien’s monologue from last night on Hulu. I’m looking forward to ten years from now, when I’ll be sitting with my teenage kids (if they’re not out on dates or something that night) when NBC airs Conan’s 10th anniversary special. And when we do, I’ll be telling them, “y’know, when Conan first became host of The Tonight Show, the ratings fell and everybody was worried he’d wash out.”
And they’ll look at me like I’m crazy …