BOSTON -- Conan O’Brien’s appearance before members of the cable and telecommunications industries Wednesday during the last day of the NCTA convention was as much a victory lap as an interview. He couldn’t resist recalling the circumstances that led him to late night on cable after his career on broadcast came to an abrupt end when NBC replaced him as host of The Tonight Show.
“What happened to me in 2010 was a fascinating experience," said O’Brien, the current Hollywood Reporter cover story. "I felt I as standing with one foot in traditional broadcasting and one in this new world. And the divide ran right through me, and I had to jump one way or the other.”
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The jump he made to doing his show for Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting was the right one for him, O’Brien made clear. It not only was a shift in outlets but in his thinking and the way his business is done -- on TV and on alternative media.
"I never claimed to know anything about any of this [new media],” said O’Brien. “I was a Luddite.”
O’Brien said it was a big deal at NBC to have a web page, which he said was similar in complexity to that of his local dry cleaner. “Clearly," he said, "there was a little bit of a condescending attitude about the web for a long time: 'It's cute. The media like to talk about it, but it’s of no real consequences.’ Clearly, that’s changed.”
It certainly has changed for O’Brien. During the interview conducted by Piers Morgan, it was pointed out that the host of TBS' Conan is liked by millions on Facebook; has a presence on Tumblr, Flicker and other web hot spots; and has 5.6 million followers on Twitter. “Jay Leno,” said Morgan, “has 376,000.”
“He’s busy,” quipped O’Brien. “He’s got the largest car collection.”
How did the new-media strategy develop? He said it really came about when his staff, Team Coco, showed O’Brien that he was the subject of a grass-roots movement. "We didn’t know," he said. "They’re very young, very smart, very savvy about technology. They use the Internet, and they’re fans of ours. I was forced to embrace this world and learn how to use it. First thing I found is that it’s all about content. ... Funny content is funny content anywhere.”
So his program evolved to embrace these passionate fans. “The show I would say gets the most focus,” said O’Brien “but you’d be shocked how much of the focus is now on [new media]. “
O’Brien said it used to be that all your efforts were to get people to watch the show in pattern when it ran live on TV, and the conventional wisdom was that if you give away your best bits before that, you would lose viewers. Now, he says, the opposite is the case. By putting clips and quips out in advance, it builds the audience.
O’Brien used as an example a recent appearance on his show by 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan. He went to see Morgan in his dressing room during a rehearsal period to work out a bit they could put on Twitter and other social media. They did a photo. “It’s Tracy and I arguing,” said O’Brien. “Then I tweeted that Tracy and I were arguing over whether Greece’s gross product should be used to determine the value of the euro.”
It was a joke, of course, and his audience got it. “It’s not just driving people on social media, but it’s driving people to your show,” said O’Brien, explaining that what it does is “get people emotionally involved in what you are doing.”
“We had an experience that I think illustrates a lot of what people here are trying to figure out,” added O’Brien. “A month ago, Will Ferrell called me up and said, 'I want to announce were going to make a new Ron Burgundy Anchorman movie. I want to do it on your show. We want it to be a complete surprise.' He got made up as Ron Burgundy and he interrupted my show as Ron Burgundy, and the place went crazy. The audience was completely surprised. He proceeded to play the flute and left.”
That was just the start for the show. “Our team chopped it up into small pieces and put it all out there,” continued O’Brien. “When I started in 1993, the obsession was, 'Don’t tell anybody anything.' What we have found is this is a different generation. It works differently now. You can show exactly what Will Ferrell did and it's no surprise. But it turns around and creates a wave of viewership for us. We had incredible awareness. It increased our viewership that night.
“The more you can do of this, the more you can create a world where some people experience the show at 11 that night while others watch it later on the DVR and others see pieces of it on some site they like. Eventually they say: ‘You know what? It’s 11 o’clock and I think I’ll check out Conan.
“The days of 'I only want people to experience me at 11 on TBS' are over. The audience is too fragmented, too distracted, and it doesn’t work that way anymore.”
O’Brien suggested that he never could have made the changes if he was still at NBC because things were too stuffy and bureaucratic and moved too slowly. “Turner has been an absolute dream come true,” said O’Brien. “We’re a perfect fit. They’re very smart. They’re up for anything we’re up for, and they’re agile. On network television I would tell the writers we’re a tiny comedy club on a big ship and the ship takes very big turns. With Turner, we say we have an idea and they say: ‘Great! Can you do it tomorrow?’”
O’Brien said he thinks a lot about the late Walt Disney because, “He never met a technology he didn’t like.”
"When animation developed, Disney used it," he said. "When sound advanced, when it became possible to do feature-length animation, theme parks, television, he always embraced the next thing. My attitude the last couple years was adapt or die.”
He added: “For six or seven months I was sitting behind the desk of one of the most iconic brands in old television, and suddenly I had to make a choice. I said, 'I think this is the way to go.' The last year and a half has been an affirmation that this is the way to go.
“It’s not the way I watched television or the way my parents watched,” he added. “It’s a new world.”