Conan in exile

When Conan O’Brien took a job on basic cable, some saw it as a step down. Now it’s looking smart.

Conan in exile

Photo Illustration by Adam Cholewa

Is Conan O’Brien reinventing the talk show, or is he just the latest washed-up network star to be exiled to cable? Less than a year after the tall, red-haired host was forced out of his job at The Tonight Show (it was the most famous late-night battle since the fight to succeed Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno won both times), he’s coming back on Nov. 8 with Conan, which will run on the basic cable network TBS and in Canada at midnight on the Comedy Network. When he took the job, many observers saw it as a step down for a man who had hosted a major network show since 1993, when Late Night With Conan O’Brien debuted. The person who’s trying hardest to portray this as a step down is Conan O’Brien himself. The obligatory musical group for the new show is called the Basic Cable Band. Brian Kiley, a writer for O’Brien’s shows, told Maclean’s that the staff is planning “jokes about being on basic cable, and that kind of thing,” while another writer, Dan Cronin, adds that they’ll be saying, “What’s TBS? What channel is that even on? We have no idea.” Back when he was an inexperienced talk-show host, O’Brien made fun of his own inexperience; now he’s mocking his exile to cable before the rest of the world can.

Unlike premium pay cable—which, no matter how many ridiculous soap-opera twists True Blood incorporates, is considered the class act of U.S. TV—most basic-cable channels are still seen as low-budget, low-class alternatives to the big networks. TBS fits that description: its biggest hits have been critically hated shows like Tyler Perry sitcoms and its current talk show, George Lopez’s Lopez Tonight (which will move to midnight to make room for Conan). It’s a channel people go to when they are no longer famous enough for network television: TBS’s sister channel TNT likes to sign up former stars like Angie Harmon or Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) for its successful lineup of low-budget dramas. It’s part of what Amy Chozick described in the Wall Street Journal as basic cable’s strategy of trying to find shows that “were rejected by the networks, often because they weren’t broad-based enough to appeal to more than a niche audience.” TNT has Southland, a drama that was kicked off NBC to make room for Jay Leno, so why shouldn’t TBS have O’Brien, who was kicked off NBC for the same reason?

That might explain why, just as the drama and comedy stars of cable usually do what they did on regular TV, O’Brien doesn’t seem to be changing much for his move to cable. The guests for the first week are the expected mix of movie stars like Tom Hanks, TV actors promoting their shows, and plenty of funny Canadians like Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, and Jon Dore (the first comic to get a stand-up performance on the new show). O’Brien’s long-time colleague Andy Richter, who was a combination of announcer and sidekick on The Tonight Show, will play more or less the same role on Conan: “We’ve been using him in pre-tapes of stuff as much as we did leading up to The Tonight Show,” Cronin says. “I don’t know that his job will change.”

Everyone seems to expect the new show’s format to start out in an equally traditional way, rather than trying to shake up the late-night comedy format like its main competition, The Daily Show. Cronin says that “I don’t think there will be any massive shakeups format-wise,” while Kiley says they might even do a long, topical Tonight Show-style monologue some days “if a lot of stuff is going on in the news, and there’s a topic that Conan loves to talk about.” Just as TNT’s Rizzoli and Isles is an old-fashioned cop show on cable, and TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland is a cable redo of The Golden Girls, Conan O’Brien could just be the latest recruit for what Stephen Colbert used to call “channel eleventy-twelve.”

And yet, it could be that despite the jokes, O’Brien is lucky to get out of network television while he can. While he’s been off TV, doing a live comedy tour called “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on TV,” the format has been declining on the major networks. Now that Jay Leno is back on Tonight, he’s getting lower ratings with important demographics than O’Brien’s own disappointing numbers on that show. Some commentators suspect that in this day and age, there’s no real advantage to being on a big network; on cable, where expectations are lower, job security may be greater. “He said in an interview, ‘Don’t underestimate basic cable,’ and I think there’s a point there,” says Reggie Watts, a comedian who opened for O’Brien on his live tour. “It’s harder to make the divisions between basic cable, network, premium cable and the Internet. People just want content.” And just because a show is on cable doesn’t mean only people with cable subscriptions will see it: online viewing is increasingly available, while CTV will show Conan on its nationwide network an hour after it airs on the Comedy Network.

The cable format also means that O’Brien has a level of control—financial and otherwise—that he might not have at a regular network. One of the reasons O’Brien didn’t sign with the Fox network, as many observers expected, was that his experience with NBC had shown how difficult a big-network show can be these days. Kiley says that while they had a lot of freedom at 12:30 a.m. on NBC, that was “because we were on so late.” When they moved to The Tonight Show, he continues, “I think the network was paying a little more attention,” and so they had to retire some of the show’s most famous characters, like the “Masturbating Bear,” a man in a bear suit who couldn’t resist rubbing his oversized genitals. At TBS, despite the earlier time, there are fewer executives, so “TBS seems like a less strict parent,” Kiley says. “Now it’s an issue of who owns the Masturbating Bear, but I’m sure that TBS wouldn’t mind if we had a character who was comparable.”

With all those advantages, why would anyone not want to go to cable? Well, maybe because the viewership on even a popular cable network still doesn’t match what a TV show can get on a major network. The biggest flop of the TV season, Lone Star on O’Brien’s near-employer Fox, got four million viewers an episode; that would be spectacular for almost any cable program. Even the biggest hits on cable, like Sons of Anarchy, get a fraction of the views their network counterparts do; shows like Mad Men don’t even register as hits at all in terms of pure viewership. Some network executives have used numbers like these to argue that cable is still a niche market, and broadcast TV is where the action is.

But what O’Brien may be counting on is the fact that in today’s TV, the number of viewers you have doesn’t necessarily determine how much influence you have. Look at Glenn Beck, who has fewer viewers than any network news anchor, and whose aging audience means he mostly gets low-budget sponsors—yet his influence (and that of other Fox News personalities like Sarah Palin) may have helped shape this week’s U.S. mid-term elections. Watts thinks that Conan, with his “very loyal fan base,” could also be the sort of cable personality who transcends raw viewer numbers, the way Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert already have. That may be why, even though O’Brien has always been a favourite with his fans (who anointed themselves “Team CoCo” when they supported him against Leno), the new series is going to take fan communication more seriously than ever before. Cronin says that apart from the need to create comedy pieces that can go viral online, “the show itself needs to embrace our fans and have channels for them to communicate with us and us back to them.” It could be that what a cable show needs to be considered a hit is not a huge viewership but a passionate, engaged one.

Of course, even if the new show doesn’t manage to get that kind of fan base, O’Brien and his writers have one ace up their sleeve: it can’t possibly be as bad an experience for them as 2009 was. “The Tonight Show?” Cronin recalls thinking when he moved to Los Angeles. “We’ll work on that for 10 years. And it ended up being about seven months.” He’s relieved to be on a show that O’Brien owns himself, where “we’re not standing in giant shoes or the big cathedral of a TV institution like The Tonight Show.” That may be the biggest advantage of being on cable: expectations are lower. And as O’Brien proved in 1993, he thrives on lowered expectations.

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