[11 November 2010]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
“The most anticipated television event since television’s last most anticipated event,” screamed the TBS billboard, ever so ironically, not only in Times Square and a few million other places across the country, but throughout cyberspace.
The object of the hoopla, Conan O’Brien, joked Tuesday that the best thing about the debut of his new show, “Conan,” might be that all that TBS promotion would be ending.
Professional critics gave decidedly mixed reviews to the first-night festivities. I blogged that they were desperate and sad. More than 50 readers responded that I was desperate and sad — and several other things, most notably old.
The youthful passion of the Coco Crispies cannot be denied. While O’Brien faltered for his few months in the old NBC “Tonight Show” spot because older Jay Leno partisans didn’t get him, he won’t have that trouble on TBS. Sure, his numbers dropped about 33 percent Tuesday from Monday’s opening of about 4.2 million viewers. The first night, O’Brien, helped a little at least by his 11 p.m. EST (10 p.m. Central and Mountain) start time, beat the old standards, Leno and David Letterman, along with every other competitor. He almost quadrupled Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” ratings.
It’s a sad fact that the first episode of any late-nighter is almost always the highest-rated, until the last one. But “Conan” still snagged 2.8 million viewers Tuesday, according to Nielsen. Most important, half of them were 18 to 34 years old. Ka-ching! Such a youthful demographic means premium prices.
Reports that the cable channel is prying Leno or Letterman money out of advertisers may be slightly exaggerated. Ad buyers usually deal in packages — one spot on an original airing, one spot on a rerun, another on “The George Lopez Show,” which “Conan” bumped to midnight, a couple more someplace else — so it’s tough to isolate the price of a single cable commercial. Reports that TBS is trying to get the higher rates charged by broadcast networks are certainly correct. Even if the ratings for “Conan” settle down another 33 percent, but the audience stays young, which it will, the network may succeed.
Lopez has made little fuss about being knocked out of the leadoff spot on TBS. O’Brien and his legions of supporters made his demotion at NBC last winter out to be the most unjust TV employment decision since the last most unjust TV employment decision.
And O’Brien wouldn’t shut up about it Monday night, when he seemed nervous, unfunny and smug. His guests, movie funny guy Seth Rogen and “Glee” diva Lea Michele, may have helped lure a younger audience, but the interviews themselves were lousy.
But what do I know?
“Hey, Grandpa Jonathan. Of course you don’t get it,” wrote ELM, commenting on my blog review. “You’re three generations out of date. Bet you miss Johnny Carson and Milton Berle.” He’s right. I do. But I’ll miss Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman, too, when I’m 95.
Said frankenslade: “Man, Jonathan, you’re more uptight (than) Leno. You deserve each other. Why don’t you try spending a column writing up all the wonders of Jay’s show?”
That’ll be the day. I’m on Kevin C. Kuharich’s side, and glad he’s not applying for my job: “Put in order of funniest to dullest, it’s Conan, Stewart, Letterman, the news, shows about ghosts, crime shows, shows about people who get shot by accident, shows about middle aged men hitting on young girls they meet on the Internet, reruns of old Nixon speeches, and Leno.”
“Conan” perked up Tuesday with Tom Hanks in the guest chair, taking grief from O’Brien for having popularized the “Coco” nickname. Even his young children call him Coco now instead of Daddy, said O’Brien. “It enrages me.”
“Finally,” Hanks responded, “you’ll blame something on someone other than Jay.”
With funny, famous guests and his quirky humor, O’Brien could toodle along on cable for years, but commenter Jeffritoe signals a problem endemic to the entire genre: “It seems like just another dead talk show.”
“I think it’s clearly a dying genre of television,” Fordham University professor Paul Levinson said in an interview, citing years of steady declines overall in the ratings of traditional late-night talkers.
Levinson, whose latest book, “New New Media,” explores how Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogging are reshaping society, gives O’Brien credit for using social media to tremendous advantage to build anticipation for his show.
“No doubt, O’Brien caught some of the new media wave,” he said, “and Conan may have the talent and sense of humor to draw the younger audience.
“But I’ve found in my study of media history, whenever you have a format that’s in decline, even though you have a powerful counterpoint come along and breathe a little air into it, generally, the downward trajectory of that format prevails.”
And none of the networks, for now at least, are anticipating that.