Why TBS Is Trimming Conan O'Brien's Late-Night Show

TV's longest-tenured late-night host will shift to a 30-minute nightly format in 2019.
Courtesy of TBS
Conan O'Brien during a taping of 'Conan' in Italy

Conan O'Brien doesn't view the upcoming format change to his late-night TBS show as a downgrade. Instead, the Conan host sees the 30-minute nightly format as an opportunity to get out of the studio more and engage with fans, including the loyal (and sizable) online viewers. 

On Thursday, the Turner-owned cable network announced that, starting in 2019, Conan would shift from an hour to a half-hour format (while remaining four nights a week). To hear O'Brien tell it, the move — which has been more than a year in the making — is based partially on what excited him as the late-night landscape evolves as much as it is to try to engage the low-rated show's sizable nonlinear audience. (Conan has the youngest audience of any late-night series and has an equally impressive digital presence with more than 3.4 billion video views.)

O'Brien, speaking with reporters, including The Hollywood Reporter, during a conference call Thursday acknowledged that a move to an hourlong weekly format was briefly considered but ultimately 30 minutes "felt more comfortable." He continued: "It gives us the opportunity to double down on stuff we're doing that works best and resonates with our fan base, especially our digital stuff, and make the show leaner so I'm never out there filling time in any way."

The trimmed-down Conan — which has three remaining years on its current renewal — will launch in January with TV's longest-tenured late-night host noting the series will still have some traditional talk-show elements as well as features he's been doing for 25 years.

While the structure of the show is not set in stone, O'Brien said the new format would allow him to pivot when a particular segment is doing well. He cited a recent episode featuring the Avengers: Infinity War stars in which he brought a smaller version of the Conan set to meet the cast at a hotel — that segment largely took over the entire episode. If a specific segment is working well, the rest of the show could be comprised entirely of that rather than the current hourlong six-act format. And yes, that means there will be fewer celebrity guests, as 30-minute episodes will likely include only one guest on top of potential taped location segments.

Conan has found ratings success on the road with its Conan Without Borders series of specials in locations such as Mexico, Haiti and Israel. O'Brien noted Conan Without Borders helped to inspire the reduced run time, as he hopes the new format will help free him so he's not chained to a studio for four hours a week. (The show will remain in Los Angeles and could see the set evolve to accommodate the new format.)

"People love when I'm outside the studio," O'Brien told reporters, adding that it's challenging to hit the road while still balancing the time and prep work involved with producing four hours of shows a week. "Anything that's going to give me flexibility and allow me to act on my instincts and allow me to move around … those are things that I want to double- and triple-down on." He joked that a potential segment could feature him climbing a pyramid in Egypt with Kevin Hart as Conan looks to embrace more "guerilla"-style filmed bits.

"Conan Without Borders opened my eyes significantly," he said. "At this stage, I want to do much more of what I love and am passionate about and what resonates with fans — especially online — and do less of what I inherited because that's what I was handed in 1993."

O'Brien acknowledged how much the late-night space has changed since he first took a seat behind the desk, with a crowded field that now includes multiple established and emerging voices on HBO, Comedy Central and Netflix. While many of the broadcast, cable and streaming talk shows take on politics, Conan has intentionally gone the opposite way in the past few years and leaned harder into comedy — both from O'Brien and up-and-coming stand-ups.

Included in Thursday's announcement was news that O'Brien would hit the road for a stand-up comedy tour with a handful of comedians yet to be determined as he looks to recapture what he called "one of the highlights" of his career when he toured the country in 2010 before launching his TBS comedy (and after his brief stint hosting NBC's The Tonight Show). In success, the hope is to bring those comedy showcases of sorts to TBS (though nothing is currently set in stone). The trimmed-down Conan will continue to put a spotlight on up-and-coming comics.  

The new Conan will work harder to build a bridge between the show's linear and nonlinear content, with online exclusives potentially getting name-checked on the show.

"The idea in this landscape is to get linear and digital to be tethered and help feed each other," O'Brien said.

As O'Brien celebrates his 25th year as a late-night host in September, his Team Coco website will also be expanded thanks to licensing deals with NBC for his Late Night library as well as with TBS for Conan, with the site serving as a hub for both libraries. (A deal with NBC for his Tonight Show episodes is still in the works.) The site will be reconfigured in September, timed to the milestone, and will be the central landing page for exclusive online content.