November 13, 2010

Thank you and welcome to my second annual first show.
- Conan O'Brien, introducing his new show Conan

On the surface of things, it is hard not to use the words of a younger generation and say that Conan pwned his opening night ratings. With more than 4.1 million viewers, Conan's show handily outpulled everyone else in the (early) late show bracket, including both his Tonight Show predecessor/successor Jay Leno (3.5 million) and late night powerhouse Jon Stewart (1.3 million). Even after Conan's ratings levelled out later that week, they may even still be among the highest ever for TBS. The earliest ratings have already topped all late night telecasts on basic cable, ever.

Yet examining the figures more closely reveals a sociological divide which has absolutely nothing to do with late-night television in itself. Late night television and its ratings are only symptoms of something much deeper.

Viewership for The Daily Show dropped by 13% (but that can be expected to recover fairly quickly). For The Tonight Show, viewership dropped by just 2%. Based on the Nielsen ratings (flawed though they be, they are nearly our only measure of such things), it seems that nearly all of Conan's audience were those who no longer regularly watch late night television. Apparently nothing in existing late night television really speaks to Conan's audience: not Leno's safe, lightly right-wing milquetoast, Letterman's slightly edgier Mr. Rogers, or Jon Stewart's unrelenting sarcastic bitterness.

Conan gave his audience something very different. First and foremost, Conan's humour asks its audience to suspend the tensions of daily life. It asks us all to try very hard together not to bring politics into it -- which invites us to be active participants, not just viewers. It balances on the fine line between easy-going and just a little edginess. What other Caucasian television host would dare say something such as
That's right – the whitest man in show business is back – on the second blackest channel on TV!
Yet Conan can get away with such things because his humour never reviles, never gets cynical, never hates. We need to laugh, so let us laugh at ourselves. And, of course, it is late: so let's all relax and be a little silly together.

Tying it all together is a fundamental sense of decency and respect for others. When the writers' strike took away the paying jobs of non-union workers, Conan immediately paid their salaries out of pocket: and only then did a few others in the same position belatedly follow suit. Throughout the writers' strike, Conan went out of his way to illustrate -- with humour -- how essential writers are to a show such as his, and he was very careful never to infringe on the writers' domain. During the Tonight Show dispute, Conan negotiated not only for himself but also for his staff, nearly all of whom had been dislocated to the opposite coast to work on the Tonight Show with him -- and then paid their extra expenses out of pocket. He bought pizza and drinks for the fans who gathered to support him in the pouring rain; and overturned Hollywood pre-ticketing precedent during his last two weeks to bring those fans into his show. He nearly turned down the tentative TBS contract because it would have put George Lopez into the same situation as Conan had been in earlier: and only accepted it after Lopez explicitly assured Conan that he was okay with it and wanted Conan on board. Even the new website of the show is Team Coco.com.

Always, he is "Conan". No one ever says "O'Brien". This is a person you are comfortable knowing on a first name basis.

These elements are all independent of the medium of television. Exactly the same elements came through during his "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour" and his playing with the concept of Twittering. Something about Conan has always been different from all the rest -- and so, even during the darkest days of the imposed television blackout, he was never out of the headlines.

And it pays dividends. When Conan chose a single fan to "follow":
I've decided to follow someone at random. She likes peanut butter and gummy dinosaurs. Sarah Killen, your life is about to change.
Sarah Killen managed to live up to the Conan challenge and turn her newfound fame to benefit the charity she had quietly been working to benefit for months, in silence. Just in case: Conan's staff had also asked her ahead of time if what Conan was about to do was acceptable to her, after warning her of the likely outcome.

Yet even before she was thrust into a world of unexpected publicity, Sarah Killen was a fan of Conan O'Brien.

Even after numbers level off further in a few months, Conan has nothing left to prove. Television executives, on the other hand, might well wish to consider whether they wish to retain more of this "new" audience which has no use for conventional late night television and increasingly no use for televisions at all -- or not.

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