Conan O'Brien to Leave Late Night Television After 28 Years: His History with Late Night and His Future

As a fan of television, late-night television shows, and Conan O’Brien, this is definitely big news. I don’t want to call it depressing, as O’Brien isn't going anywhere. He still hosts his podcast and will begin a weekly variety show on HBO Max, but if you have followed the history of late night, this is significant.

Conan's NBC Late Night History

O’Brien started his career as a writer, most notably at Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. It was at SNL where Lorne Michaels thought highly of O’Brien, so when NBC tasked Michaels to take over Late Night after Letterman moved to CBS, O’Brien was at the top of his list. He initially wanted O’Brien to produce for the show, but Conan declined, seeking to be considered for the host position. As Bob Costas was planning to leave the 1:35 timeslot, O’Brien and his agent assumed he would be passed over for Late Night, but could be in the running for Later.

However, when Lorne Michaels couldn’t find a host fast enough, O’Brien was given an audition and then chosen to be the next host of Late Night, causing a great deal of confusion. His first few years were rocky; O’Brien was nearly cancelled several times, and given multi-week contracts, which was not a sign of confidence from the network. Eventually, he found his groove.

By 1997, Conan's Late Night was gaining popularity, had reversed his poor reviews, and was beating his CBS competitors Tom Snyder and Craig Kilborn by a large number. In 2002, he hosted the Emmy Awards, which saw critical acclaim and industry buzz. Shortly after, Fox attempted to lure O’Brien away from NBC with a hefty contract and an 11PM timeslot. NBC responded by giving Conan a decent raise and promises of a Tonight Show future, something Conan had been eyeing. 

Then in 2004, NBC announced Leno would step-down from The Tonight Show, and O’Brien would take over in 2009. It was an odd deal, one that assumed Leno couldn’t maintain his number-one status, and that O’Brien would still be lightning in five years. Unfortunately, Leno was still number one (by a lot), and Conan was narrowly beating his CBS competitor Craig Ferguson. Leno had been in talks with ABC to switch networks, and NBC did not want to lose Leno, and decided to engage in discussions of new shows for Leno. Some of the ideas included primetime specials, and a once-a-week show on Sunday night. But the one that caught Leno's eye was a nightly hour-long 10PM show. It made sense for NBC which had seen dramatic ratings losses across the schedule, and especially at 10PM. They knew they wouldn't win the timeslot, but it would be far cheaper to produce and cost-cutting was a priority for the network, so Leno got the 10PM timeslot.

O'Brien was concerned upon hearing the news, but carried on, and premiered his first Tonight Show in June 2009. After the premiere, his ratings were less than Leno's but considerably younger and more diverse. In the next few months, Letterman would occasionally beat O'Brien, or they would roughly tie each other, until September 2009, when The Jay Leno Show premiered. Leno's 10PM show garnered more excitement and buzz, and brought in better guests, but this wasn't enough. Like most talk shows, half the audience leaves halfway through the show, and no matter what Leno did, he couldn't retain that audience to the end of the show. Even worse, O'Brien's ratings suffered more and Letterman was more often beating Conan than not. 

This angered NBC affiliates who had seen their 11PM newscast ratings drop significantly, and threatened NBC to fix primetime or they will preempt The Jay Leno Show and replace it with syndicated programming. NBC came up with an idea to shift The Jay Leno Show to a half hour at 11:35, and move The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien to 12:05, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to 1:05. The Tonight Show would air tomorrow, and Late Night would be earlier in the morning. Leno agreed, but O'Brien did not. This angered many who believed Leno should've left when O'Brien took over Tonight, and should've walked when his 10PM show failed. Instead, O'Brien was given a settlement of his remaining contract, and his final show aired in January 2010. A month later, Leno was back as host of The Tonight Show, where he saw his ratings fall to half of what they were years before.

Conan's TBS History

NBC's settlement with Conan included that he could not host a show until September 2010, but that didn't mean he was going to stay silent for 10 months. He went on tour with his show band across the country, while also seeking a new television home. He had many options to consider but few were networks. His deal with Fox was no longer on the table as affiliates were happier airing syndicated shows that they made 100% of the money with at 11PM, and ABC was happy with Nightline at 11:30. This meant Conan had to move to a cable channel. By 2010, cable had nearly reached its peak, and The Daily Show had proven that late night on cable can be successful, but it was unprecedented that a general audience network-sized talk show would really work on cable. But Conan O'Brien's career had been mostly unprecedented.

Of the channels with interest, there were several that had issues. One was HBO, which O'Brien and his team felt was too limiting in its reach. Comedy Central was another, but his show would air at midnight, which would be less stress and more liberating, but bad for the ego. USA was another option, although that was run by NBCUniversal, which probably wouldn't have worked out so well. Then there was TBS.

In 2004, Turner had positioned its two main cable channels TBS and TNT into designated genres. TNT for dramas and TBS for comedies. Although the two channels had been known for syndicated shows and movies, they began to dive deeper into original programming. TNT found success with original dramas, but TBS stumbled to find a breakout success. For TBS, luring in Conan was a way to bring a signature face to the channel to give it an identity. For Conan, his company could own the show, and be able to do the show they wanted, and Conan was looking for revenge. The only problem: Lopez.

In 2009, TBS signed George Lopez to host a late-night show at 11PM called Lopez Tonight. The show was doing alright for the channel, but not well enough for TBS executives. His show was at risk of being cancelled until Conan O'Brien came along. TBS felt Conan could make TBS late night a destination, and moved Lopez Tonight to midnight, and Conan premiered at 11PM in November 2010. His premiere was strong, but after a year, his ratings had dropped to just below a million viewers, with Lopez Tonight only able to maintain half, causing Lopez's show to be cancelled. O'Brien's production company had attempted twice to fill the midnight timeslot after Conan to no success. TBS even secured the very expensive rights to The Big Bang Theory to lead into Conan, which did not help.

By 2018, ratings for Conan had dropped to 300,000-450,000 viewers, and with the rest of the cable industry, it appeared viewership would remain low, so it was announced that in January 2019, Conan would shift to a half-hour format, and the show would lose many of the talk show features. This meant no more band, no more musical guests, no more desk. Just a monologue, a comedy segment, and one guest. By only having one guest, Conan could focus on the types of people that he wanted to have on the show, without the need to fill out the lineup with anyone they could find.

The half-hour shift also brought in a more non-linear focus to Team Coco. Conan and his team started up several podcasts including Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend, which brings in millions of listeners. He also boosted his YouTube uploads to include the full unedited interviews from his Conan show, as well as classic clips from his time on Late Night. His deal also involved a presence on HBO Max, a service run by WarnerMedia which owns TBS, where he will develop programming for the service.

The 2019 shift to a half-hour and the greater focus more on non-linear struck me as a bad sign for the Conan show. By uploading the interviews which need to be cut for time for TBS, it effectively gives no incentive to watch the linear show at 11PM. Keep in mind, this is something not unique to Conan. The other late night shows have also had to surrender to YouTube. Making matters worse, time has proven that the half-hour shift had no effect on ratings. However, if you've seen any of the shows during the last hour-long year and compared them to the half-hour format, Conan certainly looks a lot happier now. Especially after 20 years of doing the same show over and over again, I would imagine a change is certainly welcome.

And Now, Conan's Last Year on Late Night Television

Today it was announced Conan O'Brien would end his show on TBS in June 2021. He will still do Conan Without Borders specials for TBS, but beyond that, his nightly linear television career will come to an end. To me, this signals the end of the traditional late night show. Where other late night hosts shifted to more political discussion, Conan maintained the same evergreen comedy he excels at. Unfortunately, people don't watch linear television like they used to. The appeal of a more political late night show is that it has a sense of urgency to watch the show live. A pure comedy show like Conan isn't as high on the priority list for most viewers because if something funny happens on the show, you'll see it on YouTube the next day. It's a shame because Conan O'Brien consistently has the smartest humor and the best segments of any late night host. Unfortunately for TBS, viewers want on-demand content.

And Conan is simply following what the viewers want, which is why he will be premiering a weekly variety show on HBO Max. And honestly, for fans like myself, I think we'll be very happy with what Conan has in store. I'm sure for Conan, leaving the stress of linear television and ratings is liberating, and he will be able to do creatively fulfilling comedy somewhere subscription based. 

As someone who is fascinated with linear television, Conan leaving late night feels like a sad moment, but for the everyday person who just watches what they want when they want, it makes no difference where Conan is. The everyday viewer doesn't want to deal with linear television anymore, considering the difference between Conan's TBS and YouTube viewership.

Conclusion

It is clear that streaming and non-linear entertainment are here to stay and thriving, but along the way, that means many of the staples of linear television will have to end at some point. While I am saddened to hear that a show and a format I have been a fan of for many years is coming to an end, I am excited for his future HBO Max show and look forward to what will be coming next. 

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