The set for Conan O'Brien's new TBS late-night show is just two miles from where the host served his ill-fated stint on NBC's The Tonight Show. But O'Brien's longtime sidekick Andy Richter says the mood feels a million miles away. "It's kind of like our mom got a divorce from that jerk she was married to, and now we can have our friends over and make a little more noise than we used to," he says.
After spending years grooming O'Brien for the Tonight chair, Peacock execs quickly bailed out on the plan and returned Jay Leno to late night when his prime-time show failed. O'Brien chose to walk away (with $45 million), rather than doing Tonight a half hour later. The botched handoff rocked the TV industry, but less than a year later Team Coco is back at work, giving basic-cable network TBS a proven late-night name — Conan — at 11/10c to compete with Leno and David Letterman, not to mention Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler and other cable options that have fragmented the after-hours audience in recent years.
O'Brien chose to go to cable net TBS over broadcaster Fox, where he would have had to wait years before getting cleared on all of the network's affiliates. As painful as the parting from NBC was, Richter believes there's a new freedom that comes with no longer having to deal with Tonight's venerated history. He says Conan will revive some of the unpredictability that was the trademark of his old NBC show, Late Night With Conan O'Brien. "We'll be more likely to try stuff for the fun of it," Richter says. "It certainly didn't feel like that was part of our directive on The Tonight Show. It always felt like we were trying to find an acceptable way to fart in church."
O'Brien suffered from some sleepless nights over his exit from NBC. "I know he had some nights where he let himself think about it too much and had trouble getting to sleep and got enraged at three o'clock in the morning," says Richter. "I don't think he's doing that any more. He made money out of the deal. He was a very driven guy, and he was focused on this thing. He had a dream job taken away from him. It was a bummer."
Some of that residual anger from the Tonight experience will be felt on Conan — after all, it galvanized O'Brien's fans in the last few weeks he was on NBC. They also turned out in droves for his comedy tour that followed. "We're not going to dwell on it," says Conan executive producer Jeff Ross. "But things that happened always affect what's happening going forward." O'Brien, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is said to be itching to return. "He's excited," says Ross. "He's ready to get back into it."
Ross, who has been with O'Brien since the host was plucked from obscurity to replace Letterman on NBC, says he's not worried about being the new challenger going up against the established brands. "I can't believe however many people were watching us on NBC are all watching Leno," says Ross. "They are all over the place and they're available. I think we'll be competitive with a lot of shows in the 18- to 49-year-old demo."
Michael Wright, executive vice president of programming for TBS, says that's his expectation as well. "Conan has been doing this a long time, and there is a large and loyal audience right now that misses him," says Wright. "I think he will aggregate viewers from across the television spectrum."
Leno's Tonight is currently averaging the same 1.0 rating among 18- to 49-year-olds that Conan had. But he's gained back a substantial number of the older viewers who fled the show last year, and NBC notes that Tonight has not lost a single week to Letterman since Leno returned to the chair in March. Still, both shows are near their all-time average ratings lows, and Conan doesn't have to do blockbuster numbers to be a viable player.
Brad Adgate, senior VP at the ad-buying firm Horizon Media, predicts Conan will pull in about 1.5 million viewers a night (Leno averages 3.7 million, while Letterman has 3.6 million). Based on O'Brien's performance on Tonight, Adgate says his TBS show will appeal to a younger audience than Leno or Letterman and draw about 70 to 80 percent of the 18-to-49 ratings for those shows.
The economics of Conan also stand to make the show more profitable than either Tonight or Late Show, which despite declining ratings are still paying massive salaries to Leno and Letterman. O'Brien, who now owns his show, had to cut staff and salaries to meet TBS' lower budget. "We're making less money," admits Ross. "But nobody's bitching. We're happy to be back."