Conan OBrien might have been in the game longer than any other current late-night host, but on Thursday, he and the team at TBS sent a clear message: the comedian might be a late-night vanguard, but hes not complacent. In fact, Conan is in for some big changes next year. The show will be chopped in half, switching to a half-hour format to shift focus toward digital offerings.
Since its premiere nearly a decade ago, Conans program has followed the traditional late-night format, with hour-long episodes four nights per week. By trimming down linear airtime, OBrien and TBS hope to free up time for the star comedian to do more of what he likes best, especially travel and experimental video. The shows change, OBrien explained during a conference call with TBS president Kevin Reilly, will also come with an expansion of Team Cocos already vibrant Web presence. As late night continues to evolve, OBriens bet on digital feels like a smart one—especially as more and more audiences watch their late-night shows online the next morning, rather than tune in as they get ready for bed.
“Ive been for pushing this for a while,” OBrien said during the call. “Something that fits the modern landscape and certainly fits the way that I interact with my fans more.” OBrien recalled the commotion that arose last year when word spread that Conan might switch to a weekly format, saying, it “turns out America would just not put up with it.” A press release described the shows upcoming revamp as “less structured,” but the comedian emphasized that things wont change too dramatically. Basically, the plan is for OBrien to interview fewer guest per episode—i.e., one guest, rather than two or three. And if those interviews can use non-traditional formats, rather than sitting across from one another at a desk, so much the better. The goal, OBrien said, is to do more of the kinds of pieces that resonate most with fans—particularly on the Web. OBrien said hes been considering the specifics of the transformation for about six months. So far, no plans have been announced for the 11:30 time slot on TBS.
“One thing I want to acknowledge up-front is that Ive been doing this for 25 years,” OBrien said. “Im such a known quantity that this is not . . . Tune in and youre gonna see a whole new Conan with a shaved head and a falcon on his shoulder. . . . At the end of the day, do I know exactly what the show is gonna look like right now? No, were going to have to find it.”
As late night continues to adapt for a new era—in which viral influence can be just as important, in some ways, as ratings—this decision is a fascinating one. In many ways, its an acknowledgement of something thats been implicitly accepted for years: audience fragmentation might be a scourge on the industry, but the Web offers a viewership that might never have tuned into the traditional broadcast. Theyre often completely different audiences. Reilly cited OBriens teamcoco.com platform as a “stake in the ground,” upon which a larger collection of digital content—including Web exclusives—can be built organically. More and more, it seems that late night is looking for brand extensions that can live separately from the show itself—whether its Web extras like The Daily Shows Emmy-winning “Between the Scenes” clips or larger spin-offs like Lip Sync Battle, Drop the Mic, and Our Cartoon President, which have spun off from traditional late-night franchises to become their own entities. As audience fragmentation continues to ravage Nielsen ratings, expansions like these will likely only become more important in the years to come.
OBriens recent international trips for the show on Conan Without Borders served as one of the primary inspirations for this transformation; OBrien described his first trip, to Cuba, as “almost a religious experience,” citing it as a spark that helped change his opinion of what a late-night show can be. Those specials, OBrien noted, can require him to book travel on a moments notice—which is hard to do for a comedian with four hours of linear television per week to film. With so many late-night shows out there now, the comedian added, its important for each program to lean into its unique comic identity as much as possible.
It has been clear for some time that OBrien has been itching to shake off some of the weight that comes with the programs rigidity. The Cuba trip was in 2015, and, at the time, he was reminding reporters that he had “been hacking away at this for 22 years,” and that “there is the wear and tear of doing this for a long time.” He pitched the Cuba trip as a way to “morph” and “re-energize” himself—three years later, it seems hes finally cashing that check.
As late night has developed an increasingly rabid taste for political fare, OBrien has largely taken a different approach: doubling down on silliness. OBrien still does a very traditional, setup/punch-line monologue, and his most successful segments tend to be the zany romps its hard to imagine hatching anywhere else—like his very awkward car ride with Tom Cruise last fall.
The new tweaks, OBrien said, will allow him to focus on the aspects of the show that he enjoys most—and the ones that resonate most strongly with his audience. “I like the idea that everything were doing now that we think is forward-thinking, and that we think is somewhat risk-taking and adventurous—I like to think that that is connected to the work that Ive been doing since 1993, and with the personalities Ive played with and the kinds of comedy weve done. I like to think that its all of a piece.”
“Its the depth of the connection that you can get with your fans that seems to resonate right now,” the comedian added later. And thats what he and TBS are hoping to expand by investing more resources in digital. That push will include a new video library to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his first-ever talk show, NBCs Late Night. OBrien added that he and his team are also working to get video from his iteration of The Tonight Show up on the library as well—essentially creating a digital archive of all his previous work. Plus, the comedian will continue to boost the careers of budding stand-ups with a live tour.
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