What the Conan O'Brien Imbroglio Should Teach Him About His Next Gig

I've been spending a lot of time, probably too much, over these last few days perusing the fiasco that is the dumping of Conan O'Brien from "The Tonight Show." I'm certainly not alone, even among Mediapost columnists, as yesterday's "Why Conan O'Brien Can't Go Just Internet - Yet" by Joe Marchese proved.

I suppose my obsession comes, ultimately, from all of those nights as a teen when I stayed up late with my big brother to watch Johnny Carson, a love that later morphed into being an avid David Letterman follower in the early 1980s, to being a Conan appreciator in the 1990s, and, in these last few weeks, to being someone constantly on patrol for everything every late-night talk-show host has said about l'affaire NBC, a delight which I engage in every morning via YouTube clips which are neatly compiled by Gawker. Like many of you, I'm still a fan of the genre, just in my own time.

But, of course, outside of all the back-biting and anger, we know what the true narrative is: that TV as we know it, particularly for younger demographics, doesn't exist anymore. Thus, this is less a story of stumbling broadcast network than it is a signpost of how radically media has changed, and the difficulty traditional media has in coping with it. As I posted elsewhere yesterday, despite the impressive, social-media driven #teamconan initiative to support Conan O'Brien, there has never been even the slightest hint from network brass that maybe O'Brien's groundswell of online support means they should try to retain him on an 11:35 p.m. "Tonight Show." While that timeslot may be important to fans of Jay Leno, who is slated to take back his old "Tonight" job, it certainly isn't for O'Brien. At the end of the day, using traditional media metrics, #teamconan just doesn't matter.

Which doesn't mean that Conan O'Brien has no future. I will glom on, in my own fashion, to what others have said: that he needs to go Internet, without abandoning TV entirely. (As Marchese points out, among other reasons, broadcast still has an economic model.) Instead, what O'Brien should do is go sign his deal with Fox and go on writing comedy for TV - but comedy that always has one eye on social media.

Digitias' Jon Burg began to get at this in a post yesterday when he suggested O'Brien begin hosting "a weekly 15-25 minute unedited, unscripted digital live-stream during the workday." Conan also should go further. Yes, I'm partly taking about the tweetable joke. In his first week on "The Tonight Show" O'Brien became a trending topic on Twitter primarily because of the following: "In the year 3000, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook will merge into one super time-wasting website called YouTwitFace."

It surely helped that the joke was about social media, but there's a real power in ensuring that content is created and edited (that is, make sketches short) in such a way that it can be passed along, whether there's a broadcast version or not. Jimmy Fallon, who took over "Late Night" from O'Brien, began to leverage this before his show even began. Interestingly, no one's complaining about his ratings. The beauty of Conan O'Brien's position right now is that his victimhood in the NBC drama has built him social media distribution networks. If he's smart, he'll start using those the second the ink is dry on his separation agreement with NBC, whether he has another deal in hand or not.

At the beginning of his brief "Tonight Show" tenure, I thought that maybe we'd see more social media savvy from O'Brien, but I was disappointed. There was a kernel of an idea in the show's Twitter Tracker account, which retweeted inane celebrity tweets, but the show's flashes of social media savvy have been intermittent. The last few weeks should prove to O'Brien and his team that it is now central to whatever he does in the future.

You can go read Marchese's comments of how the lack of an online monetization model is problematic for O'Brien online. However, it's clear what O'Brien should learn from this: that he's in a place where TV stars who reach younger demographic have to be aggressive about including social media in their toolkit. Even if the online world isn't yet where they'll make the big bucks, it's where the audience is.

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4 comments about "What the Conan O'Brien Imbroglio Should Teach Him About His Next Gig ".
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  1. Jacqueline Johnson, January 20, 2010 at 4:16 p.m.

    I like Jay Leno's brand of humor on the Tonight show. Thought Conan was overrated and did not like his antics so switched to Letterman. Now will go back to Jay Leno.

  2. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, January 20, 2010 at 4:19 p.m.

    Two of the funnier things I've seen during this L'affaire Coco:

  3. Marc Williams from Williams Communications Group, January 20, 2010 at 4:25 p.m.

    Catharine's 3rd paragraph hits this issue on the head. It's about demographics. I have never researched Conan's demos, but my guess is they skew younger. Now I'm a 50 year old guy who does not find Conan's humor funny. The problem is, the younger demo whom I presume does enjoy his humor, isn't watching late-night network's old farts like me! Although I'd like to think I'm not 'that' old.

    Jay made the obvious point earlier this week, it's a business decision. Conan has been in TV long enough to know if the viewers aren't there, the show goes away. I totally appreciate the personal sacrifice he and his staff made to move from NY to LA, I get that. I wouldn't be happy either, but it's time to put on his big-boy pants and move on.

  4. Al Haberstroh from MontAd, January 20, 2010 at 4:31 p.m.

    There is real yin and yang in the O'Brian/Leno story. Conan O’Brian said at one point that he was upset because the Leno Show did not retain viewers, viewers that would continue viewing into the 11:00 news and forward into his program. You get that? Even with a remote and a huge amount of channel choices many viewers stay fixed on the station they’re watching. How 1970.

    The flip side is, as you point out, that social media is a viable conduit for a performer like O'Brian. The joy of millions of twitter followers pales beside a $30 million severance check from NBC, however. That there was a social media ground swell for him that was ignored by the network is evidence of the same lack of consumer savvy that led them to believe that they could change entrenched viewing habits and put a late night format in prime time. I think it is time for the over paid executives at NBC to listen to their viewers. They need to hit the "follow" button.

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