And Now, Conan O'Brien! ... and Younger Viewers

Expect NBC's "Tonight Show" to Get a Little Coarser Without Leno, but New Host Will Still Have to Attract a Broad Audience

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NEW YORK ( -- For decades, NBC's "Tonight Show" has been the perfect example of a big broadcast-network offering: It plays as much to the middle of the country as it does to the hip-erati on both coasts and brings in the big numbers that advertisers demand from the boob tube. But as the Peacock Network gears up for a very public transition of one of its most profitable programs -- wee-hours impresario Conan O'Brien will take over for big-audience pleaser Jay Leno on June 1 -- advertisers and media buyers fully expect "Tonight" to gradually shed its oldest viewers in favor of the young consumers who have fueled the growth of late-night cable shows such as Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report." As a result, these executives suggest, "Tonight" might get a little coarser.
Passing the torch: Starting June 1, Conan O'Brien will be in Jay Leno's seat on 'The Tonight Show.'
Passing the torch: Starting June 1, Conan O'Brien will be in Jay Leno's seat on 'The Tonight Show.' Credit: Margaret Norton

"I think some of the older crowd will consolidate and go to Letterman," said Lisa Cochrane, VP-marketing at Allstate, which spent about $1.22 million to advertise on "Tonight" in 2008 through Oct. 5, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Of course, "The Tonight Show" is a cultural touchstone, and no property achieves such status by making a radical change in willy-nilly fashion. "It's still 'The Tonight Show,' and it still has a desk and a chair and a couch and a performance area and the band. Those things have been familiar to viewers since 1954," said Rick Ludwin, exec VP-late night and prime-time series at NBC Entertainment, who helped manage the transition from Johnny Carson to Mr. Leno in the early 1990s. Even so, while NBC wants to hold current viewers, he said, "we hope to add from perhaps the younger part of the demographic that maybe isn't watching late night at the moment."

Already there are signs that NBC wants to drive awareness among a technologically savvier crowd. Mr. O'Brien is slated to go off the air sometime around late February. To get the word out about his ascent to "Tonight," according to people familiar with the situation, NBC has discussed plans to send him on a cross-country tour of sorts, posting video on the web to tout the comedian's antics, according to media buyers. That sort of maneuver would probably play best among web-savvy (read: younger) viewers.

"Tonight" is a critical part of NBC Universal's overall lineup, bringing in about $255.9 million in ad dollars in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Only morning news program "Today" and "Sunday Night Football" bring the network more ad money annually. So fiddling with the show's central elements comes with no small amount of risk. "This is something that happens once every ice age," said Mr. Ludwin. "This is as important an event as is going to happen to this company in 2009."

'Where's Leno going?'
Down the road, "Tonight" could also face competition on another front -- from its current host. Much has been made about where Mr. Leno might go after his tenure at NBC ends. Media buyers speculate he could end up on a rival network, or even go the syndication route. In any case, his reputation would be a powerful draw for a certain group of viewers. "The big question is: Where's Leno going? That might not be this year, but in the future, he could certainly have a big impact on the late-night arena if he enters back in somewhere," said Ed Gentner, senior VP-group client director at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest. "He's got a very loyal audience."

"Tonight" is likely to change somewhat. Mr. O'Brien's comedy is quite different from Mr. Leno's. He is cerebral and subversive, and relies on oddball concepts such as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a canine hand puppet who spews invective at the world around him with what sounds like an Eastern European accent. Mr. Leno gets belly laughs by reading odd headlines from newspapers around the nation. Mr. O'Brien is "irreverent, cartoony, hipper," said Ben Alba, a professor at DePaul University's College of Law and author of "Inventing Late Night: Steve Allen and the Original Tonight Show." NBC appears to be taking a "calculated risk," he said, driven by any network's concern: An aging audience becomes less alluring to sponsors, no matter how big it may grow.

Advertisers seem willing to live with an edgier "Tonight" if it means sparking better 18-to-49 numbers. "You need a little bit more of a dark edge in your sarcasm to gain an audience these days," said Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust. The late-night shows need to cause water-cooler talk the next morning, he suggested: "In an environment where people are seemingly watching less network TV, does late night become more important, because people want to hear what somebody is saying, and it gets replayed the next day?"

Allstate's Ms. Cochrane doesn't want a pale imitation of Mr. O'Brien at 11:30 p.m.; she wants the real thing. "I personally think it would be a mistake if they try to 'milquetoast' Conan. They are moving him for a reason," she said. NBC's Mr. O'Brien will approach "Tonight" as he has when hosting the Emmys, Mr. Ludwin said, doing what it takes to entertain a broad audience.

Golden goose
Here's the tricky part: Even as they demand younger viewers, marketers don't want to lose the massive crowd any of the 11:30 p.m. shows regularly generate. "That first half-hour is just pure gold," said Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Interpublic Group's Deutsch, which buys media for DirecTV, one of "Tonight's" top three advertisers. When it comes to Mr. O'Brien, "I'm optimistic, but we are going to keep an eye on it," Mr. Gardiner said.

The regime change is generating less controversy than one might suspect, largely because NBC played the game well the last time such a shift occurred. After deciding in 1991 to replace Johnny Carson with Mr. Leno -- not Mr. Letterman, as many had expected -- NBC has a "Tonight" that regularly outpaces CBS's "Late Show" in ratings. Through Oct. 19 of this year, "Tonight" reached 4.84 million live and same-day viewers, according to Nielsen, compared with 3.43 million for "Late Show," 1.89 million for Mr. O'Brien, 1.62 million for CBS's "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" and 1.57 million for ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live."

But NBC can't rest on its laurels. None of the late-night broadcast entities are growing their overall audiences. The 2008 figures might seem impressive, but consider that in 2003, "Tonight" reached 5.74 million live-plus-same-day viewers in the same time period. "Late Show" reached 3.83 million, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" reached 2.43 million, and "Kimmel" reached 1.65 million.

Meanwhile, snarky and sophisticated cable competitors have seen numbers jump. In the same time period, "The Daily Show" saw its reach move to 1.51 million live-plus-same-day viewers in 2008 from 855,000 in 2003. "The Colbert Report" has jumped to 1.13 million live-plus-same-day viewers from 1.08 million in 2007. Even fledgling "Chelsea Lately" on Comcast's E! has seen its audience jump for that time frame to 494,000 in 2008 compared with 409,000 in 2007. Each of the cable shows boasts a greater audience between the ages of 18 and 49 -- advertisers' favorite demographic -- while each broadcast show, except Mr. O'Brien's, reaches more viewers between 25 and 54.
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