Late night host Conan O’Brien credits the internet with saving his career. It was 2010, and he and NBC had just had a very public, very personal spat that ultimately saw O’Brien hand “The Tonight Show” back to his predecessor, Jay Leno.
O’Brien was prohibited from appearing on TV for seven months, so he embraced digital.
“When I went through my craziness at NBC, I was thrust into world where I was reliant on the internet,” O’Brien told reporters over lunch in midtown Manhattan last week. “I am a luddite, I didn’t have much experience with the online culture, and I was really saved by the grassroots movement, and these fans who were coming out online and supporting me.”
Eventually, O’Brien secured a new show at TBS, and he launched an online destination to accompany it. It was there that he realized that for today’s young consumers, late-night TV is largely watched online, not on TV.
“My assistant Sona does not own a television, she watches everything online,” O’Brien says. “There is a whole generation that expects to see their media that way. They expect to see it on their phone, they expect to see it on their tablet, they expect to see it on their computer. It is a completely different mindset.”
"They don’t watch 'Saturday Night Live' the way we watch 'Saturday Night Live' -- they are looking at the clips throughout the week," he adds. "My experience is that I come into the office and all the young people are looking at the clips from the late-night shows. They are seeing it on their time."
Now, O’Brien is about to embark on a new phase of his career, and he plans to lean-in to the digital future.
Early next year, O'Brien will reboot his TBS late-night show. Instead of being an hour-long talk show format, it will be half an hour, and the mood will be "loose and playful," O’Brien says.
"I really want it to feel like I’m playing, now it is time to try and break it, play with the conventions, and my hope is the show will evolve," he says.
One thing O’Brien does know: the show will not end once the half hour is up. The goal is to turn its digital presence into a true destination for comedy.
"You should be able to see what I’m up to almost 24 hours a day that should be part of the show, and if we have something fun that we can comment on in the moment, we should put that out at 3 o’clock in the afternoon," he says, noting that viewers of his show have responded to segments that feature people working for the show. "What I would like to do is shoot the show a little longer than 30 minutes… work hard to put the best version of linear out there, and then put the rest out online, so they work off of each other.
“You can see what happened on the show, but if you want to see what happened afterward, or me talking to the audience after the show, you can see that online,” he adds.
While television CPMs remain the gold standard of video advertising, O’Brien believes that ultimately, marketers will reward the comedy that people watch, wherever they happen to watch it.
O’Brien recalled the appearance of a young stand-up comedian on his show, James Veitch. The linear show itself scored its typical ratings haul -- however, clips from Veitch’s appearance subsequently secured more than 70 million views between YouTube and Facebook.
“That is more people than watched The Beatles on Sullivan,” O’Brien says. "This is an amazing world right now, where the number of people that can see what you are doing online, it is absolutely incredible.”
The challenge, of course, is finding the metrics that can measure these views in a meaningful, accurate way -- one that marketers can also get behind.
“If you get 70 million views for something, my advertisers want to be in the mix,” he says. “People tolerate and watch short, quick ads in that space. It is all going to morph, and the metrics are going to morph.”
Ultimately, O’Brien argues, content providers and advertisers have nothing to fear about the digital revolution. And he is betting that he and his team will be right at the center of the action, able to take advantage of whatever digital curveballs get thrown their way.
"When they excavated Pompeii, the two things they found first were advertising on the sides of walls, and a lot of pornography. These are the things that endure," O’Brien jokes.