Fair or Unfair to Conan?

This Wall Street Journal piece on Conan O’Brien at TBS is obviously written to be as negative as possible about how he’s doing. For example, it compares his current numbers to the numbers he got in his first month, even though the debut of any talk show has numbers that are wildly inflated – nobody actually expected O’Brien to keep getting 2.4 million viewers an episode. And the author spends a lot of time quoting TV executives about O’Brien’s “niche appeal,” which sounds suspiciously like old NBC executives kicking him while he’s down.

The piece still makes a fair point overall, since O’Brien is probably not doing as well as the network expected. He’s running into the same problems he ran into at NBC: He’s falling behind his competitors in overall audience, and while the network can and does point to his success with young viewers as a reason for keeping him on, his numbers are heading in the wrong direction. It’s a strange, low-budget replay of the NBC situation, with Stewart and Colbert replacing Letterman as the established comics who are beating him. As with O’Brien’s supporters at NBC in 2009 (yes, he had them) TBS points to the fact that O’Brien attracts the youngest median age of any late night comedian, and claims that the advertisers are still interested for that reason; his detractors take to the media to claim yet again that he’s a niche performer whose appeal stops once you reach 34. Both arguments are probably valid.

And just like at NBC, O’Brien’s problems are increased by the problems of the network. O’Brien comes off, both on the show and in articles, as a guy who is doing what he’s good at and hoping people will watch. TBS comes off as a network that had all kinds of grandiose plans to expand, but no real idea about how to do them beyond buying up a lot of sitcom reruns. (They outbid FX for the cable rights to Big Bang Theory, but you can’t build a network brand on reruns of a show that’s going into syndication all over the place.) TBS’s attempts to create an original programming brand have been haphazard and generally unsuccessful, except for the Tyler Perry shows, which are bad but popular. Recently they’ve tried getting away from half-hour comedy and getting into one-hour comedy or dramedy, like the failed ’80s nostalgia show Glory Daze. These shows are expensive to make and aren’t particularly popular with young viewers, who would rather watch the light hour-long shows on TBS’s sister channel TNT. Meanwhile, TV Land, BET and FX have in their different ways managed to launch inexpensive half-hour comedies, stealing away a lot of the young comedy-loving audience that TBS was trying to get.

The head of TBS sort of sums it all up in the article when he says the following:

“We want TBS to be a leading comedy brand,” Steve Koonin, president of Time Warner’s Turner Entertainment Networks, which includes TBS, said in an interview. The company is still working on fleshing out its strategy. “How we get to that destination we don’t have 100 percent mapped out today,” Mr. Koonin added.

So it’s not that Conan, let alone the recently-canceled George Lopez Show, are fulfilling all of TBS’s hopes. But the network seems to be another example of how cable networks sometimes try to launch themselves as major players without having a real plan to make it happen: TBS snapped up Conan because he fit in with what the network wanted to become – a young, hip network for young, hip people who love to laugh – but didn’t surround him with shows that fit. O’Brien probably is a niche performer whose primary appeal is to people under 34. But this is primarily a problem because the network expected him to deliver an increased audience almost on his own.

I also find it mildly funny that the piece uses an anonymous source to say that NBC urged Conan to broaden his appeal. I would have thought this was a matter of public record. But now I can’t remember if anyone went on the record in The War For Late Night to say that he asked Conan to be broader.

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