THR Cover: Conan O'Brien: End of the Pity Party

8:29 AM PST 05/23/2012 by Stacey Wilson
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Joe Pugliese

Thrown to the wilds of basic cable (and its teensy ratings) after his NBC debacle, the late-night comedian has emerged with his own postmodern TV model: a digital empire, his company's own shows and a young audience TBS hopes will follow him anywhere. As for his years of roller-coaster emotions? "I have no regrets about any of it."

This story first appeared in the June 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Conan O'Brien sits inside Prosecco, a trattoria in L.A.'s Toluca Lake, sipping Pinot Noir on the night of April 17 and ponders the reality that his 49th birthday is just hours away.

"Tall people getting older is funny because they often don't," says the 6-foot-4 O'Brien, postshow in a striped V-neck sweater and black slacks, his leather jacket draped over a chair. "I'm like those junk trees that grow really tall, really fast, then fall to pieces. I'll be doing a monologue five years from now, and there will be an audible crackling sound."

As if on cue, a waiter appears with a birthday candle-embellished dessert of panna cotta.

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"How lovely and embarrassing!" says O'Brien.

"Do you want us to sing to you?" asks a stylish fiftysomething woman at the next table with her husband and another couple.

During the next few minutes, O'Brien chats with the couples about schools, bar mitzvahs, his two young children, the work he and his wife, Liza, have done with the Children's Defense Fund.

This reporter interrupts to point out that the wax on his birthday candle is melting away.

"OK. … I wish a good year for all of us!" says O'Brien, blowing out the candle. "By the way," he adds: "I lied about caring about the underprivileged because there's a reporter here. I'm looking out for No. 1. Me and Mitt Romney."

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After the diners leave, he says: "That was nice. I like talking to people. It's tough to be in this business if you don't enjoy those moments."

♦♦♦♦♦

Back in January 2010, there weren't many moments to savor following his spectacularly acrimonious exit from NBC -- one that netted O'Brien a reported $30 million buyout but cost him his dream job as host of The Tonight Show. On May 17, when he and fellow NBC exile David Letterman sat down together on Late Show -- O'Brien's first guest spot on the CBS show in 13 years -- things seemed to have come full circle as the two discussed the worst 10 days of O'Brien's career or, as Letterman put it about the NBC debacle, "some kind of mix-up." With Letterman baiting, they playfully bashed Tonight's Jay Leno in a way that wouldn't have been nearly as funny only a year ago. At that point, total viewership for the first season of O'Brien's TBS late-night show, Conan, had dropped from a high of 4.2 million the first night of its November 2010 debut to a monthly low of 876,000 -- behind Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report and even, on some nights, E!'s Chelsea Lately. Ratings expectations were great when Conan debuted; when the numbers tanked, TBS had to offer advertisers "make goods."

"TBS' pricey Conan O'Brien experiment is flopping," chided the Wall Street Journal in August. Even worse, others were buzzing that he'd given in to self-pity and lost his comic edge. The 2011 documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, about his post-Tonight Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour and a 2010 60 Minutes appearance did him no favors with some observers who complained that he'd become "whiny." Vanity Fair's James Wolcott said O'Brien "came off as a peevish straw of nervous energy … a self-involved chatterbox."

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Sitting with Letterman, though, O'Brien looked relaxed and happy. And why not? One day earlier, he had brought down the house at Turner Entertainment's ambitious upfront rollout in New York's Hammerstein Ballroom throwing barbs at execs via Conan's popular fake Craigslist ads. For Les Moonves: "HOUSE SWAP: "My $20 million house in Brentwood for my $30 million house in Malibu. Ha, just kidding! They're both my houses! God, I'm rich!" More significant, TBS announced at the upfront that the Tosh.0-esque Deon Cole's Black Box from O'Brien's Conaco production company would air in 2013; this is on top of a handful of other scripted comedies in various stages of production and development, including a soon-to-be-announced late-night show for the midnight slot following Conan. "Conan is our Mount Rushmore," says Turner chief Steve Koonin, who in February re-upped O'Brien's initial reported $12 million contract through 2014. "We've made him the centerpiece of TBS. If success were only about ratings, we'd just run Westerns all the time. We're never going to be Leno and Letterman, and that's great. To be second to Stewart and Colbert is OK with us."

Yes, Conan's ratings still lag those of Comedy Central's basic cable power duo, but during the past six months, O'Brien's audience has grown to 1.1 million viewers (Letterman and Leno have 3.4 and 3.8 million, respectively). TBS also has carved data from the 18-to-49 demographic to show Conan outperforms every network late-night show in the 18-to-34 demo and has the youngest average viewer age: 35 (57 percent of that audience is male).

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Beyond ratings, O'Brien is exploiting new viewing platforms and invading the digital space with a vigor that has made him a new type of television pioneer. He has the most Twitter followers of any late-night host (5,673,313); more Facebook fans (1,862,368) than Jimmy Kimmel, Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Letterman and Craig Ferguson; and TeamCoco.com streamed more than 12 million videos in March, up 22 percent from 2011. His AT&T-sponsored Conan-synchronized tablet app allows viewers to experience video clips and other bonus content in real time and has streamed 1 million episodes since its February launch.

This is why, instead of backing down when ratings sank, TBS went all in and invested a reported $1.5 million an episode to air The Big Bang Theory reruns as a youth-targeted lead-in for Conan. The cable network best known for Tyler Perry sitcoms is betting its future on the still-youthful-by-late-night-standards O'Brien and hoping to attract his younger, digital-savvy audience and rebrand the network, which has struggled to make a splash with original comedy.

"Here's what Conan is doing that's very smart -- advertisers don't only want large numbers for specific demos; they want an engaged audience," says Larry Chiagouris, marketing professor at Pace University's Lubin School of Business and former chair of the Advertising Research Foundation. "The more you engage with your audience, the more you develop a relationship with them, they tune in and pay attention to the commercial messages. The average Conan viewer is more engaged with his program than the average viewer of Jay Leno's. I would bet on it."

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Certainly, TBS' pro-digital, post-ratings approach is yielding innovative ad dollars from large advertisers like AT&T, which sponsors the Conan sync app. "There are more important things to determine the efficacy of an ad campaign than the ratings of people tuning in on a certain night," says Chet Fenster, managing partner at MEC Entertainment, a division of the global media agency that helped craft AT&T's partnership with Turner. "Advertisers want to be where the consumer is … Facebook, Twitter. The key demo is 18-to-34 -- that's the sweet spot."

It's also an audience that can help create buzz. On the afternoon of March 28, Paramount gave Will Ferrell the go-ahead for the much-anticipated sequel to 2004's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and the comedian needed to make a fast decision about how to announce the movie. "We had 24 hours to do something before the news leaked," says Ferrell. "Conan was our first call."

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