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A downscaled 'Conan' readies its cable debut

Conan O'Brien and his staff don't have the budget on their TBS show that they had with NBC's 'Tonight Show' — and that may not be a bad thing.

November 06, 2010|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times

As their new 11 p.m. TBS talk show gets ready to roll Monday, Conan O'Brien and his staff have started to learn how the other half lives. After 17 years at NBC, they're adjusting to cable-sized portions.

"We have a lower budget for the show," Jeffrey Ross, executive producer of "Conan," said in an interview. "So unfortunately we couldn't bring everybody with us" from "The Tonight Show," where O'Brien was unceremoniously dumped and Jay Leno reinstalled as host earlier this year.

And then there's that 250-seat studio on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, which "Conan's" designers have rigged up to resemble the kind of mid-sized theaters O'Brien successfully played on a nationwide comedy tour earlier this year. "The studio is a little bit smaller than what we had" at "Tonight's" studio in nearby Universal City, Ross said.

Yet O'Brien's switch from legacy broadcaster to basic-cable outpost represents a hugely symbolic moment in the evolution of late-night TV, as the audience tilts away from aging franchises such as "Tonight" to younger competitors.

In October, for the first time ever, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" became the No. 1 late-night program among adults ages 18 to 49, beating "Tonight" and CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman," according to the Nielsen Co.

Leno and Letterman are now battling for supremacy of a diminished and notably grayer audience. The median age of the Letterman viewer is 56; for Leno, it's 55. Meanwhile, Stewart generates just as much news and water-cooler chatter as do the traditional hosts. And the field includes a growing roster of other personalities with their own followings, such as Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and Chelsea Handler.

The plethora of talk shows brings to mind Johnny Carson, who ended his reign as late-night king in 1992 by noting that the world's population grew by 2.4 billion since he started doing "Tonight" in 1962. "Half of those … will soon have their own late-night TV show," he joked.

"There's no king of late night anymore," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media in New York. "There's a lot of princes, even a princess, but there's no king."

TBS is angling to grab a big slice of the youth audience with O'Brien, whose goofy "Coco" persona has developed a strong cult following among college kids. Ross said that though the program will have a different flavor, it will still feature the familiar elements, including a monologue, comedy bits, guest interviews and even sidekick Andy Richter.

On the TBS lineup, O'Brien is joining George Lopez, another broadcast refugee whose "Lopez Tonight" has aired on the network for a year. "Lopez Tonight" will get pushed back to midnight so "Conan" can take the prime 11 p.m. spot.

The Time Warner-owned cable network is hoping for a double punch that can match what NBC has with Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon as well as CBS' block of Letterman and Craig Ferguson. CBS declined to comment, and an NBC spokesperson could not be reached.

"We're in competition with everybody," Ross said. "The gap's narrowing. Cable is not Siberia anymore.… The Comedy Central guys have proven that."

But it can take a long time to establish a late-night comedy brand. After all, "Tonight" has ruled the kingdom, with only a few exceptions, since its premiere in 1954. O'Brien himself got off to a famously rocky start as host of "Late Night" in 1993. Critics savaged his tentative performance, and NBC executives had so little faith in their young host that they initially balked at making any renewal commitment lasting more than a few months.

"Lopez Tonight" started strong, then slipped and has not averaged more than 1 million weekly viewers since March. Robert Morton, a former executive producer for Letterman, was recently brought in to overhaul the show.

Morton has stressed doing the Lopez program as if it were a live event, even though it's taped in the late afternoon. Before he arrived, "there was a lot of overtaping on interviews, a lot of editing. They were really not paying any attention to the clock, and it felt a little lackadaisical as a result," Morton said in an interview, adding: "We're looking at it more as a comedy show now and less as a talk show."

One big challenge for both O'Brien and Lopez will be booking top-flight guests.

For the first week, O'Brien has an A-list lineup that includes Tom Hanks, Jon Hamm, Seth Rogen, Michael Cera and Lea Michele. But the ensuing weeks could prove more difficult, especially if ratings slump.

"Everyone's scrambling for bookings," Ross said. "There's a pecking order that takes place based on your ratings."

"Lopez Tonight" has had a spotty record in wooing big stars, although Mariah Carey, Eva Longoria Parker and William Shatner have recently turned up.

"Obviously they're going to go to the 11:30 shows first," Morton said of celebrities. "The pickings are lean by the time it gets to our show." But he added that Lopez offers a younger, more diverse audience.

He also predicted that "Conan" would actually lower some hurdles for "Lopez Tonight." Although the earlier show may steal away some potential guests, it will nevertheless mean a more consistent lead-in than the sitcom repeats that previously preceded the show.

Likewise, Ross has fallen into the optimistic spirit so common to TV projects in their early stages. That extends even to the subject of those low budgets in cable.

"There is something liberating about having less money, in a funny way," he said. "It sort of makes some decisions for you. Sometimes it's easy to fall back on what's the easy thing that costs a lot of money to go get or do.

Not having the luxuries, he added, "may spawn a little more creativity."

scott.collins@latimes.com

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