Ad buyers excited about Conan at TBS

Say he'll give them a stronger bargaining chip

The more the merrier.

That was the reaction of TV buyers last week to the news that Conan O'Brien is headed to TBS in the fall to begin a new chapter in his late-night talk show career. Buyers said he'll be one more option they can use to play sellers against one another during ad sales negotiations.

And the fact that O'Brien in the past has drawn a younger audience compared with his competitors Jay Leno on NBC and David Letterman on CBS -- a definite plus among most advertisers -- makes the O'Brien bargaining chip that much stronger, they said.

A seasoned veteran of the late-night talk wars, O'Brien is re-entering the fray in November after what will amount to a 10-month hiatus; his last "Tonight Show" on NBC was Jan. 22.

Whether O'Brien will steal any notable audience share from Leno or Letterman -- or Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," for that matter -- is debatable. But many TV buyers agreed that he can succeed if he draws the same loyal cult of viewers (younger and male skewing) that he attracted but couldn't seem to expand upon during his tenure at "Tonight."

O'Brien "has to bring in his core audience," said Don Seaman, vp-director of communications analysis at Havas' MPG. It's an audience, he said, that appreciates his quirky "inside joke" sensibility. He's "the hippest nerd on TV," Seaman added.

"I think he'll do OK," said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at independent buying and planning shop Horizon Media. He predicted that O'Brien will draw an audience of about 1.5 million viewers, big by cable standards, but about a million viewers less than he was doing at NBC. Adgate believes that the average age of O'Brien's audience will be about 40, or roughly a decade younger than the average audience for "Tonight" and "Late Show," and more in line with the age of viewers tuning into "Daily Show" and "Colbert."

If O'Brien does grab 1.5 million viewers, it would put him atop the late-night cable talk show competition based on first-quarter 2010 Nielsen ratings, which put "Daily Show" in the lead with 1.4 million, followed by "Colbert" with about 1 million, TBS' "Lopez Tonight" with 890,000 and E!'s "Chelsea Lately" with about 830,000.

But buyers don't believe O'Brien will generate anywhere near the same level of revenue he did at NBC, which was roughly $100 million in the seven months he hosted "Tonight," according to ad tracker Kantar Media. "I don't think he'll do half that," said one.

More than one broadcast network executive last week was happy to see O'Brien headed to cable and not to Fox as had been rumored -- and where, those executives said, he'd potentially take a bigger bite out of the audiences for "Late Show," "Tonight," "The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" on the broadcast network side (3.5 million, 3.3 million, 1.7 million and 1.5 million first-quarter viewers, respectively).

But David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports at TBS, said that kind of thinking is misguided.

"It's no longer about broadcast and cable, it's about TV and watching programs," he said. "Conan is going to pull audience from everywhere."

Levy declined to predict a specific rating for O'Brien's new show, but he did note that some advertisers already have told him they want in. The O'Brien show will be packaged with companion program "Lopez Tonight" for sales purposes. (The two will air as a block from 11 p.m.-1 a.m.)

Noting the improving economy and marketers' desire to grow share, Levy predicted there will be more overall dollars in the upfront market this year, which will buoy most of the main time periods, including late night. On top of that, he said, "we're already hearing certain dollars will be earmarked for Conan."