High Hopes for Conan O’Brien’s Debut

Only 17 months after his last reappearance in a starring role on late-night television, Conan O’Brien is back.

Conan O'Brien
Getty Images
Conan O'Brien

Things will be noticeably different this time, of course: now he’s on cable.

How much the switch to cable will really matter may not be immediately discernible, though that will not keep observers of the late-night world from making instant comparisons to his past performance, beginning with whatever results Mr. O’Brien puts up in his first new show on Monday night, starting at 11 p.m.

When he made his debut as host of “The Tonight Show” on NBC in June 2009, Mr. O’Brien attracted a spectacular audience of more than six million viewers, with a huge rating among the prized late-night audience group of viewers 18 to 49.

He seems unlikely to pull in quite that many on Monday, though his new channel, TBS, has certainly gotten out word of Mr. O’Brien’s arrival, using a ubiquitous baseball-and-blimp-based promotion campaign.

In the long term, TBS’s only stated expectation for Mr. O’Brien is that he attract a younger audience than he did on NBC, though Michael Wright, the chief programmer for TBS, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he believed Mr. O’Brien would settle in with a “healthy, robust audience.”

Robust in cable would most likely translate to about one million viewers or slightly more, with a rating among 18- to 49-year-olds of 0.5. That would probably be enough to make Mr. O’Brien’s show a solid profit center for TBS.

Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, is predicting big numbers for Mr. O’Brien’s premiere week. He said in an e-mail that he thought Mr. O’Brien would average 2 million to 2.2 million viewers this week. (David Letterman on CBS won late night last week with 3.8 million.) But he said he thought Mr. O’Brien could win the premiere week in late night in the 18-to-49 audience.

By comparison, Jay Leno on NBC and Mr. Letterman have been battling for leadership this season with modest national ratings among that group, averaging about a 1.0 rating. (And in the latest week’s ratings, Mr. Letterman beat Mr. Leno for the first time since Mr. Leno displaced Mr. O’Brien last winter.)

Mr. O’Brien would have to return with a true vengeance to surpass that number. And more will be different for Mr. O’Brien this week than just a shift in delivery systems from broadcast to cable. Unlike his last entrance, in the sleepy month of June, with few big movie stars making the rounds, Mr. O’Brien is coming on to a noisy, crowded, midseason stage.

Every other late-night show is up and running this week, heavily booked with major names looking to push their fall projects. On CBS, Mr. Letterman, who made a conscious decision in June 2009 to take a breezy, low-intensity week and allow Mr. O’Brien his inevitable heavily attended opening bow, is hardly laying down this time. On Monday, he has booked Harrison Ford and the music act of the moment, Cee Lo Green; on Tuesday, it is Denzel Washington and Bon Jovi; on Wednesday, Russell Crowe; and on Thursday, Cher.

In June 2009, Mr. O’Brien did not have to think about competition from Mr. Leno, who had left late night for prime time. This week, Mr. Leno will face Mr. O’Brien’s new show on Monday accompanied by a Conan of his own, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor of California, a former Conan the Barbarian, is one of Mr. Leno’s most reliable, ratings-generating guests. Later in the week, Mr. Leno will counter with other stars, including Kim Kardashian and Diane Keaton.

But probably the biggest challenge for Mr. O’Brien starting this week, and thereafter, will be his head-to-head competition on cable, in the form of the two hottest performers in late night, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Coming off their hugely attended Washington rally and an intense week of political coverage, the two hosts, on Comedy Central, have enormous momentum.

Mr. O’Brien has a flush first two weeks of guests himself, starting with Seth Rogen on Monday and followed by a lineup that includes Tom Hanks, Jon Hamm, Michael Cera, Russell Brand and Jesse Eisenberg.

“I think Conan will get the same kind of big opening his first night,” said one former late-night writer-producer. “He’ll get a little time to shine; maybe a bit less than everyone thinks.” The reason, said this person, who spoke only on the condition of not being identified because of continuing ties to a competing show, has to do with the time of year: November, a special ratings period called sweeps month, has the unrelenting pressure of competition as more and more late-night shows fight for a diminishing share of the audience.

“After a few nights, I think Conan will come down to his real level,” the writer-producer said. “And that will have nothing to do with him. He’s great. But you just can’t get a whole lot of people to watch any one of these shows anymore.”

This person predicted, “Conan will settle in and be fine, and he’ll run on TBS for long time.”