Conan O’Brien stares into the camera. “Are you ready for a whole new kind of late-night television?” he asks.
“Good. Me neither.”
This is one of 30-plus different promos that aired on TBS during the baseball playoffs for his new talk show “Conan” starting November 8 at 11 p.m., almost ten months after his final day on NBC. It may have been a tongue-in-cheek joke, but then again, there’s a nugget of truth there, too.
Atlanta-based TBS is giving him its airwaves specifically so Conan can be Conan. Irreverent, yet occasionally juvenile. Edgy but not too edgy. Youthfully energetic though seldom mean-spirited. It’s the kind of late-night television fans have embraced for years on his 12:35 a.m. show on NBC and to a degree on his short-lived “Tonight Show” incarnation that ended messily in January.
The basic tenets of his past talk shows will remain in place: the monologue, the goofy skits, the celebrity interviews and the musical guest. But the energy for what could be dubbed “Conan 3.0″ has already shifted.
“That difference in feeling,” said O’Brien’s sidekick Andy Richter, comes from “his literal ownership and our collective figurative ownership of the show. We’re doing this without feeling like we’re filling in or standing in anybody’s shadows. We’re not taking over. We’re starting fresh.” [NOTE: I got an interview with Richter since I wasn't able to get Conan, who did very few interviews with publications like ours, though as I'll note below, he did do some advance radio interviews.]
TBS has embraced him in a way that makes it clear he’s King TBS, a big fish in a smaller pond.
“It’s not materially different from what you’ve seen him do for 17 years,” said Michael Wright, head of programming for TBS and other Turner cable channels . Wright saw one of the first test shows in late October at O’Brien’s studio on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. ”"He’s a guy who continues to evolve and grow his show. So if you liked him before, you’ll love him now.”
Besides the ubiquitous TBS promos, O’Brien isn’t leaving a stone unturned. He posts daily to his 1.8 million Twitter followers. (Sample Tweet: “As my 5 year-old son and I carved the pumpkin today, I swear I heard him say, ‘That’s what happens to snitches.’ “) His crew created a “live” CoCo cam on his www.teamcoco.com page featuring among other things, 1980s-era aerobics dancers and a food eating contest. There’s an orange-colored Conan blimp traveling from city to city, hovering over Turner’s Atlanta headquarters Oct. 29. He’s on the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time in 14 years.
TBS even flew in radio personalities from around the country to Los Angeles last month, including three Atlanta radio stations to visit the set and interview O’Brien.
“I was the last of 23 radio interviews he did in a row,” said Mike Bell, afternoon host of sports station 790/the Zone. “He was still sharp as a tack. I joked around with him as if it were 1930s radio. ‘Tell me about your hardscrabble life before you became part of the media elite!’ He just hung out and ripped it.”
Jeff Dauler, co-host of Q100’s the Bert Show, said the set has a ’50s vibe to it with red velvet seats and lots of burgundy and gold tones. But he couldn’t snap photos: security had them seal their phones and cameras in plastic pouches. “We did get to sit at his desk,” he said.
Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at media buying firm Horizon Media, said he expects huge numbers when O’Brien’s show debuts, but there are no expectations he will exceed his numbers on NBC. “It’s a very competitive time slot,” he said, an hour that includes Comedy Central’s duo of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, E!’s Chelsea Handler and at 11:35 p.m., Jay Leno and David Letterman.
Wright, of TBS, said he expects the average viewer to be younger than what it was on NBC and for his network, “a very healthy robust audience.” He wouldn’t specify target numbers but if O’Brien averages 1.5 million a night, that’d be comparable to Stewart’s “Daily Show.”
Richter said Conan is much more relaxed at this stage than he was before he started “The Tonight Show” last year.
“He’s in a great state of mind,” Richter said. “If something doesn’t work out, it’s like, ‘Well, that’s okay. There’s always tomorrow!’ It’s not like we poked a hole in the Mona Lisa. It’s easily fixed.”
“Conan,” starting November 8 at 11 p.m. on TBS. Will air Mondays through Thursdays.