After months of waiting, yesterday the Conan O’Brien fans of the world got socks for Christmas. I guess we needed some new socks anyway. But really, socks? Socks is TBS... okay, I’m being metaphorical.
I was at work when the news sailed out on the interwebs, and several of my friends just texted me three cryptic letters: “TBS?” (making me wonder if they were wondering if it was okay to watch edited Sex and the City reruns or back-to-back-to-back airings of Martin Lawrence’s 1999 classic Blue Streak). But no, they were talking about Conan O’Brien’s new real estate venture. I was disappointed.
TBS isn’t all bad news, I suppose. For brunch in college, I remember I’d often have a two-hour block of *gasp!* Yes Dear and *not-so-gasp* Everybody Loves Raymond.
I didn’t have cable for many months after I moved to LA. The moment after it was installed and I found out ESPN was showing women’s college basketball, my first programming choice was an hour of Family Guy on the Broadcasting System. I have sometimes watched Batman and Robin in 15-minute increments on the T when I feel like being reminded of how ridonkulous it was. But see, even after I’ve tried a serious evaluation of TBS in this paragraph after a joking one, I’ve descended into punchline fodder again.
What I can say of TBS is that it wasn’t much of a brand or identity until, I guess, the last five years or so. It has since managed to repackage itself as a younger-skewing, mostly comedy programming showcase. That is to say TBS isn’t totally uncool; it’s just lacked “must-see TV” relevancy. It’s the safe pick when the idea of channel-surfing sounds exhausting. TBS’s opening salvo into the late night world — Lopez Live with George Lopez — wasn’t something that P’d me O or anything, but it just felt unnecessary. But this is different: now Conan is buddying up?
I suppose I’m saying I thought he could have done better. The narrative many of us were hoping, and that many in the industry were expecting, was that Conan would return as early as September on Fox. In the 11 o’clock slot, he’d get a half-hour jump on Leno. Conan’s younger and hipper (see ironically bearded, tight jeans and “D.A.R.E.” t-shirt wearing) audience would easily find him since Fox is the kids’ table of networks as far as rating demos goes. By the way, I have nothing against ironic beards; I just can’t grow one and I’ve lost my 6th grade D.A.R.E. tee. Moving on.
Fox is also a much more free-wheeling network that allows some of its shows, like Family Guy, to do and say things in primetime that CBS wouldn’t let air at 4:00 a.m. in an alternate universe. Conan would be able to, starting from scratch, create his own kind of late-night talk show that would be thoroughly Conan. It would command the young audience, the media buzz, and if it didn’t trounce Leno in the ratings, it would surely damage him and eventually Conan would rule the day, as Jay Leno would drive the Model T he came in on off into the Burbank sunset for an early bird buffet at what passes for a comedy club. It was all going to work perfectly, and Conan’s orange tufts were an ideal and exciting fit for the Fox. It was going to be like a band un-selling out, jumping ship at Jive and coming back to Tooth and Nail to go their sincere beserk.
But the TBS announcement doesn’t come paired with that excitement or story. Rather, it takes the audience Conan thrives on and asks them to make a difficult choice between CoCo and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Granted Conan on 11:00 at Fox would have been the same time slot too, but being network TV, the framing of the ratings battles wouldn’t have pitted Conan against Stewart but against his proper rival, Leno. There’d be no wondering between Conan and the Stewart/Colbert mash-up if “this town was big enough for the both of us.” They wouldn’t be in the same zip-code.
On TBS, Conan is selling himself short. He didn’t have to do cable. If he did cable, he should have considered an HBO romp (again, another zip-code). He didn’t have to go against The Daily Show and The Colbert Report either. I think he will find this experience more humbling than he’d like. I love me some Conan something fierce, but I’ve often wondered if The Daily Show and, by extension, The Colbert Report are some of the most important TV of our times - not to mention entertaining. If there’s a big story in the media, or if Bill Clinton or Tom Hanks are going to be on the other side of the desk at Comedy Central, I won’t be able to deny my remote. Granted, like most people, I’m likely to DVR both of them and Conan, but the priority will be there.
I also wonder about Conan being able to get the big-name guests still. Obviously, plenty of celebs are Conan fans and friendly, but this hasn’t stopped many of them from doing Leno’s zombified Tonight Show because, better than zombies, money talks. If The Tonight Show gets the widest swath of audience, guess where you’re going to promote I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! or Shrek Forever After. The Comedy Central block commands the guests they do because of 1) content, 2) demographics, and 3) buzz. Conan will need that third, especially, to bring in the big-guns on a consistent basis, and if the reaction to the TBS announcement is any indication, that’s an uphill battle. Speaking of battles, that’s what Team Conan wanted to follow their fearless general into. Going TBS is like signing a peace accord or, worse yet, surrender. The fan-base is left with pent-up energy and no place to place it.
On Monday, April 12th, Conan also kicked off his nationwide “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” live show, wisely starting in the college town of Eugene, Oregon. Announced many weeks ago, the live show, unlike the TBS transition, was an exciting move for CoCo. And the first reports and videos from the show were all encouraging. This was the Conan O’Brien I love — the one I waited hours for in the rain outside of NBC Universal in LA his last week of taping — not the one that goes to TBS. There’s a goofy character amongst the many from Conan’s old digs named “Fed-Ex Pope.” It was just a skinny dude in a dirty robe wearing a Fed-Ex box on his head. My first feelings were, after those first texts, that if Conan was Pope, he was distinctly Fed-Ex’ing himself with the TBS move.
But then such hope from the tour reactions! Which Conan that I loved was the real Conan? Had he changed over time, in our time apart? Many people are great with the TBS move, since, as the deal goes, Conan will have complete ownership and creative control over his show and its content (something definitely not present at NBC’s Tonight or a given with Fox), and ironically, being on TBS also gives Conan access to more US homes than Fox would have (because of tricky affiliate dealings). Also, Conan pushing Lopez from his present time-slot isn’t hypocrisy because it was Lopez who encouraged it and, reports tell us, sealed the deal. But still, TBS?
Then again, the encouraging live show content and reaction. I suddenly remembered something. Conan O’Brien is smarter than me. Dude went to Harvard. I uh…didn’t. A secret, genius plot suddenly revealed itself to me. Conan hosts his new TBS show for roughly five years. If he does it properly and does his Conan best, it will be a buzz-worthy destination and a cornerstone of TBS’s programming and brand. Advertisers will fawn over his audience. Critics, especially given the lowered expectations due to the outlet, will laud O’Brien’s new broadcast for its genuineness, its willingness to try new things, and for its being a new thing to begin with. In other words, it’s all good. And then…
For years John Stewart has been a rumored replacement for David Letterman, who doesn’t have too many TV years ahead of him. Why Stewart? He has all those things already that were just listed as hopefuls for Conan’s future. If Conan can carve that niche out for himself too, look out for this shocking development in the late twenty-teens.
NBC, long since under new creative oversight as part of its being acquired by Comcast earlier in the decade (see: now), will be fishing for a Tonight Show host after Leno finally starts to take a dive or after his ratings grow too gray. Already having pushed a median viewer age of nearly 60 in the early ‘teens six years later, Leno can only get advertising dimes from companies that manufacture “The Clapper” and “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” machines. The empire Conan was once pitted against in the form of Jeff Zucker and his brass is a thing of the past, and NBC’s new director of programming has a novel idea, a profitable one, and one that will make permanently fade those scars of the past. He makes an offer to media and viewer darling Conan O’Brien to return to his throne at The Tonight Show, and a last laugh will be had by all.
Perhaps this new boss will make his offer “Lion King”-style, appearing in a cloud to Conan over his hakuna-mattata fields of TBS bellowing “REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE.” Then, similar to the montage that opened Conan’s first try as Tonight host, where he ran from New York to LA, Conan will run through those deserted plains and elephant graveyards that divided him from network television and ascend Pride Rock, The Tonight Show, to an Elton John power-ballad that will stir all our hearts and TV dials. Talk about a proper narrative.
I don’t think Conan thinks he’ll be with TBS forever. I think he’s gone to get a load off and eat some bugs because his evil uncle has taken leadership from him. If we all chill out and have a good time, a reprise of Conan’s first Tonight Show victory will be in hand, if something not very much like it. We just have to chill out for a while. Hakanu-Matatta it. Maybe for five years. And five years isn’t that long of a time. Five years ago, I was flirting with the idea that TBS might actually be cool watching reruns in a dorm. Five years ago, Conan O’Brien was the next host of The Tonight Show.
Everybody with me now: “It’s the ciiiiiircle, the circle of liiiiiiiiife.”
'Conan' will begin ruling TBS nightly from November 8, 2010.