What if late-night TV fans came for the Stupid Pet Tricks rather than the celebrity interviews or the opening monologues? What if the whole show was Stupid Pet Tricks?
Sitting down with movie and TV personalities is still the backbone of the late-night genre, but with social-media use on the upswing, several of the wee-hours productions are placing more stock in a reliable technique that historically received less attention: stunts.
On Jan. 31, Volkswagen sponsored an episode of TBS's "Conan" filled not with the red-haired comedian's usual cerebral antics but rather scenes of the program "re-created" by fans. The show was the direct result of Mr. O'Brien starting what he called an "Occupy" movement, asking viewers to work together to produce a whole episode of his show. The result was a mix of animated shorts, live-action segments and more -- a hodgepodge Mr. O'Brien called "a bold, experimental, and potentially disorienting show."
On Jan. 24, ABC aired an episode of "Jimmy Kimmel Live" without the show's host. Instead, actor Matt Damon -- a butt of Mr. Kimmel's jokes ever since the comedian ran a musical short about ex-girlfriend Sarah Silverman having sex with Mr. Damon -- "hijacking" the program and calling it "Jimmy Kimmel Sucks."
At NBC, "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" has been generating publicity for themed weeks devoted to a single musician, such as a run of shows in late February and early March of last year that paid tribute to Bruce Springsteen.
With these ideas gaining more attention, it comes as little surprise, perhaps, that Time Warner's Turner Entertainment, operator of TBS, has turned one of the ploys into a roost for a sponsor. The company tries to devise partnerships several times a year for Mr. O'Brien's program, said Frank Sgrizzi, exec VP-ad sales and marketing for TBS and TNT, and typically brings a sponsor and the show's staff together if there's a creative idea that has been broached. "Conan typically has these concepts he'd love to execute," said Mr. Sgrizzi.
In the case of the Volkswagen sponsorship, Turner had not signed anyone for something around the late fourth quarter of 2012 and first quarter of 2013, and Mr. O'Brien had already proposed the idea to his viewers. Working with WPP's MediaCom, VW's ad buyer, Turner was able to bring the automaker on board -- a new sponsor for a specific stunt on "Conan," he said.
Even without marketing support, the growing crowd of late-night shows may prompt more departures from the routine. "The bottom line is late-night is severely struggling for this fragmented audience, and it's getting smaller and smaller," said Jeff Ross, executive producer of Mr. O'Brien's program. "Anything you can do that brings more attention...."
And while it's true that the list of these ploys goes back decades -- didn't David Letterman put on a suit made of Alka-Seltzer and dunk himself in a 900-gallon tank of water in the 1980s? -- these days they also have social media in which to reverberate.
Though not in the way one might think. "There is a normal cadence to social conversations for late night shows and stunt programming typically pays off, but not immediately," said Dan Neely, chief executive of Networked Insights, a company that helps advertisers analyze social-media talk taking place around their brands.
"Stunt programming, like the Damon-hijack, does increase conversations around late night shows, but there is a catch," he said. "The payoff of stunt programming typically happens the day after the broadcast when it has been validated by media outlets and social outlets, which helps it reach the masses."
That may explain why ABC chose to rerun the "hijacked" version of Mr. Kimmel's program in prime-time on Tuesday, Jan. 29, pre-empting a rerun of "Body of Proof." Jumping on content that starts to generate fan talk "is a little bit of the world of television right now," said Andy Kubitz, exec VP-program planning and scheduling, ABC Entertainment. "Once you see something catching a little bit of fire, you want to fan the flames."
Late-night production executives say they don't necessarily do these things out of a desire to court advertisers, but rather to shake up the routine of a program that hews to a pretty basic format five times a week. But they also realize that clever gimmicks can do more to goose interest among fans -- and the advertisers who court them -- than the usual coterie of celebrities out to flog their latest project in an interview.
"Any time there is a big pop culture happening or news event, it is a gift to late night talk show hosts who have to generate one hour of fresh monologue content a day," said Jill Leiderman, executive producer of "Jimmy Kimmel Live," in an e-mailed response. "Bigger stories and overall themes are great catalysts for creativity and hooks for new material."