Friday, April 16, 2010

Conan's Surprise Move to the Superstation

What's been the weirdest moment of the ongoing saga of late night television? Was it when Jimmy Kimmel did a whole show dressed like Jay Leno? Was it when Conan O'Brien rocked out to "Freebird" with Beck and Will Ferrell's pregnant wife? Or was it when Conan O'Brien recently announced that he was planning to start a new late night show on TBS ("The Superstation") come November?

When the announcement came earlier this week, media analysts were stunned. Most bets had been on O'Brien moving to the FOX network, which currently lacks a strong late night lineup. There were a few people who tossed around the notion of Conan moving to cable, but the conversation was strictly limited to Comedy Central, as fans and pundits debated the merits of lumping Conan's edgier style of humor with the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, two other satirists who have a firm grip on that vaunted 18-27 Nielsen demographic.

But TBS? It seems like a choice out of left field. Especially in this age of extended cable packages, TBS is a dinosaur, a channel best known for broadcasting sitcom reruns and Atlanta Braves games. Why in the world would Conan choose to join a middling basic cable network over what must have been far more prestigious offers?

But after the initial hubbub settled down, most pundits actually agreed that Conan made the right choice. There are a variety of reasons as to why he didn't settle with FOX. Most notably, most local FOX affiliates broadcast the nightly news at 10 pm, followed by some sort of syndicated program, such as The Simpsons, at 11. Apparently a lot of these reruns actually garner fairly good ratings for the local networks, and the affiliates were hesitant about pre-empting this for a late-night star who hasn't yet proven that he can bring his viewership to a timeslot before midnight.

TBS, on the other hand, has a lot of offer. The network will be broadcasting the American League playoffs in October, meaning a big advertising campaign to clear the way for Conan's triumphant return in November. Even more importantly (and somewhat bizarrely), TBS has already proven itself as a growing hub for young viewers, especially those in the age bracket that makes up Conan's core audience.

The lead-ins to Conan's new show will be reruns of The Office and Family Guy, popular with young viewers. Conan's show will also be pushing back the fairly new George Lopez vehicle, Lopez Tonight, by an hour to midnight. And - get this! - while Lopez Tonight may have been critically panned and all but ignored in mainstream media journalism (I wasn't aware that it existed until this week), it has been a ratings boon for TBS. Among adults 18 to 34 years old, Lopez Tonight has been beating David Letterman and The Colbert Report, two shows in the same timeslot. Ratings for TBS among the 18-34 bracket rocketed up 40% in the first four weeks of Lopez's show.

So there's already an audience of young viewers on TBS, which means that Conan won't have to struggle to convince Kids These Todays to start tuning in. Even the mediocre George Lopez will profit - he is on record as excited about the prospects for his show with Conan as his new lead-in. Finally, expectations will be less for Conan's premiere on cable - though production values for the show will remain similar, Conan will not be under pressure to deliver astronomical ratings so quickly. Unlike his stint on NBC, ratings for late-night network shows are much lower. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report regularly attract between 1 and 2 million viewers. These figures are perfectly acceptable for a cable network like Comedy Central, but Conan was fired from NBC for "only" drawing in close to 3 million viewers a night. Expectations are different, and Conan will have time to build an audience on cable without the networks biting at his throat.

So, it's a happy ending for everyone from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien to George Lopez (well, except for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who will languish in some sort of litigious purgatory). In one sense, it's the classic generation gap - older viewers supporting Leno on network television, while younger viewers watch Conan on newfangled cable. But I think it's interesting to note that cable networks are suddenly such a viable option, and that cable shows like those of Stewart and Colbert are now often mentioned in the same breath as network programs.

Just a few years ago, there seemed to be a trend toward hyper-specialization of cable networks. Cable television began in the 80s with channels like TNT and TBS offering old movies and reruns of syndicated shows - diet network television, if you will. But the advent of super-specific channels like Sci-Fi or The History Channel meant that old-school cable channels such TBS went through an identity crisis, struggling to attract the niche audience that other cable networks were aiming for.

But now those boundaries are dissolving, and more and more it looks like cable is the new home for programs willing to take risks. Network TV can't necessarily afford to do this, with its archaic local affiliate structure - networks are beholden to their individual stations. But cable has been broadening in the past five years - becoming mainstream, if you will. Sci-Fi is now SyFy and MTV no longer stands for "music" - these name changes are easy to mock, but they also reflect cable's desire to grow up, to break out of these specific identities and broaden their horizons. Look at a program like The Daily Show - its clever satire and high-level guests are a far cry from the stand-up comedy specials and old movies that Comedy Central was founded on.

Perhaps the best example of cable's growing viability is Mad Men, a perennial favorite of both this blog and critics at large. The show has won tons of critical acclaim and gobbled up Emmys - and it airs on AMC, a channel which I distinctly remember showing nothing but black-and-white movies only a few years back. Other cable channels are following suit and shunning their former low-budget programs to produce something new and exciting, things that wouldn't fly on boring old network TV. And, through their subscription fees and increased ad rates, they have the funds to do it.

And now Conan O'Brien has a show on TBS. I'm not going to go as far as to say that network television is being held hostage by older viewers - but three versions of CSI and two iterations of NCIS tell me otherwise. Cable television, once synonymous with cheap, low-budget dreck, is now is producing some of the edgier stuff out there. And as more and more children grow up with cable packages in their homes, I think younger generations will see less of a dividing line between network and cable TV. Our parents only had four channels to watch late night TV on, and they were used to those limited options. But younger viewers are accustomed to having a lot more to choose from, and, as such, they're flocking to nontraditional channels to view newer kinds of programming.

Conan (or whoever is handling him) has realized that cable television means lowered expectations, more creative freedom, and a similar budget to networks. I would be looking forward to his show in November, but I don't subscribe to cable myself.