The more the merrier. That was the reaction of TV buyers last week to the news that Conan O'Brien was headed to Turner's TBS network this fall to begin a new chapter in his late-night talk show career. He'll be one more option buyers can use to play sellers against each other during ad sales negotiations, they said.
And the fact that O'Brien in the past has drawn a younger audience compared to competitors Jay Leno (now hosting The Tonight Show) and David Letterman (Late Show) -- a definite plus among most advertisers -- makes the O'Brien bargaining chip, they said, that much stronger.
A seasoned veteran of the late-night talk show wars, O'Brien is reentering 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 -- 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 the Tonight Show.
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, svp, research at independent buying and planning shop Horizon Media. He predicted that O'Brien would 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 O'Brien's audience will average about 40 years of age, or roughly a decade younger than the average audiences for the Late Show on CBS and Tonight Show on NBC, and more in line with the age of viewers tuning into The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
If Conan 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 show The Daily Show in the lead with 1.4 million viewers, followed by The Colbert Report 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 was on the air in the Tonight Show slot, per 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 the Late Show, the Tonight Show, 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 today is misguided. "It's no longer about broadcast and cable, it's about TV and watching programs. Conan is going to pull audience from everywhere," he said, declining to predict a specific rating for the show.
Levy did note that some advertisers have already told him they want in on O'Brien's new show, which will be packaged with companion program Lopez Tonight for sales purposes. (The two shows will air as a block from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.)
Noting the improving economy and desire by marketers to grow share, Levy predicted there would 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."