The Conan Channel: How Conan Could Change TV But Probably Won't

By Tim Gomez 2010-01-14 19:03:39 discussion comments
The Conan Channel: How Conan Could Change TV But Probably Won't   image
Conan O’Brien got screwed. That’s obvious. What isn’t obvious is how he plans to pick himself back up from the royal beating that NBC has given him. Sure, it’s very possible that NBC will take Tuesday's press release to heart, kick Leno aside, and give Conan his timeslot, but it’s even more likely that they’ll stand their ground, give The Tonight Show back to Leno, and leave the Redheaded Wonder in the dust. And while a Shawshank Redemption-like trip to a beach in Mexico sounds great to most of us, it would be a great waste for Conan to remain unemployed.

So what does a man of his stature (no, not just his height) do now? There are the supposed offers from other networks, namely Fox. On a channel like Fox, he’d likely be allowed to bring back the tone from his Late Night days, opting for more obscure humor than he was allowed to do on The Tonight Show (the masturbating bear!). But what’s the likeliness that a brand new talk show – even one from Conan – would have enough success to rival the other networks? Conan would likely have to fight an uphill battle against two late night juggernauts: Letterman and Leno, as well as cult favorite Jimmy Kimmel. If nothing else, he could probably beat Kimmel in the ratings, but Fox's affiliates don't even seem keen on joining the late night world.

He could head back to his writing roots. Before he was chosen out of obscurity, Conan was writing classic episodes of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. It's widely know that Conan has always been a writer at heart; he was, after all, the editor of The Harvard Lampoon during his college years. But who could really see Conan taking that kind of step back? It's an idealist's view if there ever was one. We'd all love to see Conan bring The Simpsons back to its prime years or even script a pilot or two, but writing is generally a background position (unless, of course, you're Tina Fey), and it seems highly unlikely that Conan would want to step out of the spotlight completely; he's gotten way too good at performing.

But what seems like the best but least likely and least talked-about option is for Conan to go online. Recently, television has become less regarded as a ‘push’ form of media and has become more of a ‘pull’ form of entertainment, meaning that we choose what we want to see and when we want to see it. We TiVo our favorite TV shows and watch them when it’s convenient for us (after dinner, before school). We stream shows on websites like Netflix, Hulu, and many of the networks’ own websites. We purchase full seasons of televisions shows on DVDs, opting to skip them entirely during their original airing. The internet will eventually suffocate conventional television and it will be those who understand the dynamics of this new era who survive.

This is great for not only viewers but advertisers as well. Leo Laporte of TWiT.tv has found enormous success in playing to a specific niche. His goal is to create a 24/7 online tech channel, and so far, he's doing pretty damn well at doing so. Recently, he revealed that he pulls in about $1.5 million annually while only spending about $350,000 on his website – that includes costs for over ten podcasts and shows, seven employees, and a lot of expensive recording equipment. Laporte is able to do this because he offers his advertisers prime customers. Companies don't have to spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to air a commercial that only a fraction of viewers will care about. Instead, they pay a few thousand dollars to have their ads play for a group that is actually interested in their product. Laporte also benefits from having a large amount of listener support, so much so that he recently announced that listener donations would be used to pay his salary and that he would no longer personally pocket ad money.

Conan plays to a very similar crowd as LaPorte. No, he doesn't pull Leno or Letterman numbers (although with a year or more, he probably could), but he has a very large, specific group of people who will follow him wherever he goes. They're a young, «hip» and tech-savvy crowd, much different from the crowds that normally enjoy late night programming.

So imagine this: an on-demand all-Conan all the time online video database, a place where Conan can post skits, interviews, on-location pieces. He can stream live monologues and archive them for later viewing. He can even have his audience still, albeit in a much smaller soundstage. But who wouldn't sign up to see Conan do his thing in an intimate atmosphere? Late night shows are known for being cheap to produce, and it would be even cheaper to produce them in a smaller set and with less production value. No flashing lights. Only a couple of cameras. Conan can even go back to hosting smaller indie bands rather than junky mainstream acts like Pearl Jam.

All of this could be done for relatively little money, and advertisers would happily pay only thousands to advertise to the same group of people that they were paying hundreds of thousands to advertise to on NBC at 11:35pm. They could sell their Hangover DVDs, their Mini Coopers, their iPods. They could sell cell phones, computers, technology, and they could do this with far more confidence and less risk than they would with a network. They know the group they're selling to and can target more effectively. Niche advertising works. This could be in addition to a viewer support program, a donation-based system that would like bring in hundreds of thousands annually if handled correctly. Without a network, this is completely possible.

More importantly, Conan's fans are made up almost entirely of the social networking generation. When he released his statement on Tuesday announcing that he would not stay with The Tonight Show if it got moved back to 12:05am, Twitter was bombarded with tweets from people joining Team Conan. The support online has been almost unanimous, with very few people coming out on «Team Leno.» The internet is Coco's crowd, so why wouldn't he take advantage of that, even if it means taking a pay cut up front? But Conan won't start an online Conan channel. It probably hasn't even crossed his mind. Moves like this are risky, and even though Conan has more than enough money to try it out, he has no reason to. Television is still safe, and we're still very early on in this transition. But what if he did consider it? What if he did decide to make the move to the interwebs? Just like that, he could singhandedly validate online television. He could make us turn off our TVs and head to our iMacs. No longer would our computers be a novel way of viewing episodes of shows that we missed the night before; instead, our computers could easily become our primary gateway for viewing media.

A couple of weeks ago, Nick Bilton of the NY Times wrote an article about his home television set-up. He ditched his cable company and now pays only for an internet connection and a Netflix account. He connected a cheap Mac Mini to his TV and now gets all of his TV from the internet. Bilton understands that we no longer have to be spoonfed our media. The age of the internet is an age of choice. The future of media is choice. The future of television is choice. And I wish Conan could be the one to lead us there.
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