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Conan O’Brien’s Agent Insists ‘Conan’ Is a Ratings Hit

WME’s Rick Rosen tells the NAPTE TV trade show not to listen to misguided news reports about the late-night show's ratings.

Conan O'Brien
Meghan Sinclair/Team Coco

Miami Beach – Whether Conan O’Brien’s Conan on TBS is a hit or just doing so-so in the ratings depends on how you look at the numbers, and which numbers you look at.

The numbers O'Brien’s agent Rick Rosen of William Morris Endeavor is looking at include not only nightly ratings but also a week’s worth of cumulative DVR viewing -- as well as the media age of who is watching. By that standard, Rosen said in a session at NATPE on Tuesday, his client is a hit, the network is thrilled and Conan himself is delighted.

While Conan is tracking below Jay Leno’s Tonight Show on NBC and David Letterman on CBS in total viewers, and much of the time in the coveted 18 to 49 demo, Rosen insisted that the traditional way of reading the tea leaves is no longer relevant.

“The ratings system needs to catch up to the viewing patterns and the world,” declared Rosen, adding: “To me it’s the most significant challenge to television today.”

As head of TV development for WME Rosen has seen big changes in recent years. Where his agency used to focus on selling big shows to big networks for big packaging fees, today he said they have to sell to big, small and medium networks, on broadcast, cable and new media platforms, and find new programming ideas in the U.S. and around the globe.

“Nothing is as it used to be including this convention,” said Rosen. “That reflects the market. My business has turned into a volume business with the proliferation of networks. We now make sure we sell a lot of shows, whatever the platform. We now sell to them all, large and small.”

Rosen explained the intense analysis the team at WME did last year after Conan left NBC and before he settled on a new home. He said they started out assuming it would be natural for him to move to another broadcaster, and that the most likely was Fox. However, “Fox had clearance issues.”

For a while Rosen said they felt they could tough it out and the clearance issues would eventually go away, as local affiliates played out syndication contracts and picked up Conan in pattern with the rest of the country.

Then they faced reality. “We thought about it for some time,” recalled Rosen, “but we knew there would be ratings stories that would hurt him (because of a lack of clearances, he would come in below Jay and Dave).”

Rosen grumped that they knew “no one would do the analysis so we knew it was problematical.”

They then considered syndicating his show until Turner Broadcasting executives showed up “late” in their deliberations.  The offer to move Conan to TBS, where he could do his show the way he wanted, was attractive -- especially when they looked at the lead-in that shows like Family Guy and The Office would provide. “It was much more compatible to younger audiences,” said Rosen.

The average TBS viewer at the time was about 40 compared to 55 or 56 for the broadcast networks, said Rosen.

Now after six months on the air at TBS, Rosen said Conan’s audience is averaging a very youthful 34, way below the mid-50s average for Jay/Dave.

With youth comes a different way of watching TV, said Rosen. That includes watching shows on different devices at different times, often in bunches, multi-tasking while watching and recording many shows for later viewing. That is why Rosen said the plus 7 ratings (meaning viewing done up to seven days after the broadcast) is so relevant.

Rosen said that despite the misguided news stories about the Conan ratings, TBS is so happy that it is “the most incredible thing I’ve experienced.” He said TBS is talking to Conan about producing other shows for them on which he would not appear.

Conan’s production company recently sold a show to CBS, and Rosen said they are close to another sale of a show to Fox; while conversations with TBS about more programs continue.

And Conan is happy that they let him do his show his way and are supportive, even as critic’s carp there is nothing new to it.

"They (Conan and his producer) keep saying to me ‘these guys can’t be this nice.’ They’re thrilled," said Rosen.