A year since Conan versus Jay, has Late Night really changed?

On January 22nd, 2010, Conan O’Brien signed off his seven month stint as the host of the Tonight Show with a rousing performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s glorious “Free Bird.” Maybe you remember this moment. It’s still on my DVR.

In the year that has passed, Conan circumnavigated the media world until he was contractually allowed back on television – hosting a TBS show that carries his name and seems a lot like his old program. The hope was that he would reinvent the medium, but instead, it feels like the ratings update every week from TV by the Numbers tells the exact same story. Here’s their post from last Friday, but it potentially could just be recycled from any of the previous week’s posts dating back to November and Conan’s TBS debut:

“Jay Leno’s Tonight Show adults 18-49 ratings were well below those of  Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show on a calendar week basis (2010 vs. 2009), and were above Conan on TBS for the week.”

Here’s the pretty proof in graph form, passed along from that same post at TV by the Numbers:

The only spike on there for Conan, naturally, is his debut week on the cable net. By my math, the only thing missing on here is a flat line at around .8-.9 that for Jon Stewart, so the point pretty much stands. Conan has done respectable for cable, but he hasn’t been “can’t miss” in any of these first eight weeks (at least in the shows that I’ve caught up on the following morning). If anything, the cable late night host who has earned that title – along with my new favorite pejorative of “Oprah Winfrey for urban hipsters” – is Stewart, offering to be a voice of sanity in another polarizing and politically charged month.

Last January’s Internet darling hasn’t seen nearly the amount of fawning posts that he enjoyed in that month, just the occasional spike but more in the flat line territory in recent days:

Sure, search volume doesn’t equal commentary, but I think it gives a good sense of the zeitgeist of Conan’s staying power in the mindset throughout – and after – his time on the bench. The whole idea around him heading to cable was to do something different – have we seen it yet?

I ranted about the possibility of Conan doing more with the Internet last winter, but we haven’t seen anything mindblowing. Sure, he has a lot of fun on Twitter and with people checking into his blimp on Foursquare, but I don’t think that’s enough to say he’s pushing the boundary by way of cable or social media. I like the live Conan cam and the other Web video offerings, but they are kind of a sad replacement to a fifth show every week. And, sure, the Flaming C became a real action figure, but it’s not like this is a gimmick that couldn’t have been done on network.

Where’s the innovation? Where’s something that will make me switch off a live Daily Show or catch up in the morning over coffee? I’ll be patient, but hopefully it won’t take a threat of a George Lopez takeover to bring out the best in Conan.

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One Comment on “A year since Conan versus Jay, has Late Night really changed?”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dave Levy, Corey Hickerson. Corey Hickerson said: RT @LevyDR: A year since Conan versus Jay, has Late Night really changed? http://bit.ly/gjcciu [...]


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