“TBS’s pricey Conan O’Brien experiment is flopping.”
If Conan O’Brien opens up Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, that blunt sentence will be the first thing he’ll see if he decides to read the Journal’s story about how his show, “Conan,” is faring following its first season, and heading into its second.
How would he deal with such an assessment blared in a high-profile story in one of the world’s most respected newspapers? “What’s helped me immeasurably my entire career is the capacity to tune out all of the noise around me and put my head down,” he once told me in an interview, back in March 2007. “And then,” he said, setting up a punchline, “if I encounter some problem along the way, I’ll deal with that then – mostly by pouting and weeping!”
Well, he’ll have an opportunity to pout and weep if he reads this Journal story. In the wake of the cancellation last week of TBS’s other late-night show, “Lopez Tonight,” the story notes that Conan’s audience has also dropped off steeply – a whopping loss of 60 percent of its viewership since its premiere last fall. Specifically, the show drew an average of 2.4 million viewers nightly in its first month — by this past July, that average was down to 958,000, the story said.
Among cable’s late-night shows, “Conan” – seen weeknights from 11 to midnight (10-11c) – trails time-slot competitors such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (11/10c) and “The Colbert Report” (11:30/10:30c), both on Comedy Central, and, in some weeks “Chelsea Lately” on E! (11/10c), the story reported.
The news is also bad among the younger age groups advertisers crave. The story points out that Conan is losing the battle for viewers 18-49. And that’s a big problem because his appeal among the younger demos was a big reason why TBS hired him in the first place.
With ratings down, the Journal questions whether “Conan” can remain profitable for TBS, particularly because the show is expensive, including Conan’s salary – reportedly more than $12 million a year.
Despite all this, TBS brass is saying they’re sticking with Conan. “Conan personifies the smart funny tone that we want TBS to have,” Turner Entertainment Networks President Steve Koonin told the Journal. “His program is the signature show of our line-up and the centerpiece of our network.”
Still, in cancelling George Lopez, TBS just slashed its commitment to original late-night programming by 50 percent. And now, whether TBS stays in the late-night TV business depends solely on how “Conan” does in Season Two (especially since there’s been no sign the network is eager to develop a new late-night show to replace “Lopez”).
When you recall how millions (or seemingly millions) of Conan’s fans rallied in support of him after he lost “The Tonight Show,” the erosion of his audience on TBS comes somewhat as a surprise.
The question is: Is Conan still hot, or will he soon become another casualty of the ongoing late-night wars?