August 18, 2011 8:40am PT by Georg Szalai
TBS' Multi-Million Dollar Plan to Prop Up Conan O'Brien's Ratings
NEW YORK – Conan O’Brien’s first season on TBS has been a pricey flop with viewership of Conan down by about 60 percent since a high-profile debut last fall, the Wall Street Journal said on Thursday.
Time Warner-owned TBS, which the Journal said has committed to a second season and may start negotiations about a potential third season as soon as within the next six months, expressed confidence in the comedian though. The paper also highlighted that the cable network has spent to prop up Conan with the Big Bang Theory as a lead-in.
"Conan personifies the smart funny tone that we want TBS to have," Steve Koonin, president of Time Warner's Turner Entertainment Networks, which includes TBS, told the Journal. "His program is the signature show of our line-up and the centerpiece of our network."
Viewership for Conan was about 2.4 million in its first month late in 2010, but it fell to about 958,000 in July, the Journal said citing Nielsen Co. data. That means he trails all major competitors on broadcast and cable networks during the 11pm time slot
However, O'Brien continues to draw advertisers because he attracts young viewers, the network told the Journal. TBS says the median age of 32 of his viewers remains the youngest among the late-night talk shows, and it says that many watch his show online as teamcoco.com surpasses more than 1 million views each week.
In July, O'Brien averaged approximately 685,000 viewers in the 18-49 demo, fewer than such cable competitors as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and broadcast rivals Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and Jay Leno, the Journal said.
TBS, which saw its viewership among 18- to 49-year-olds drop 11 percent this past TV season, hired O'Brien for more than $12 million per year in 2010 after he left NBC.
The cable network recently canceled its other late-night show, George Lopez's Lopez Tonight.
While O'Brien's audience has declined, the cable network has paid for marquee content to protect its investment, the Journal said in highlighting that TBS next month will start airing repeats of CBS hit The Big Bang Theory as a lead-in to Conan two nights a week. It cited an estimated price tag of $2 million per episode.
"We want TBS to be a leading comedy brand," Koonin said before acknowledging: "How we get to that destination we don't have 100 percent mapped out today."