Slim Fast: TBS will pare 'Conan' down to a half-hour

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A 'Conan' segment featuring the host, center 'Game of Thrones' stars Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey.
A 'Conan' segment featuring the host, center 'Game of Thrones' stars Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey. Credit: Team Coco via YouTube

TBS is putting the squeeze on Conan O'Brien, as late-night's most battle-tested host has agreed to lop a half-hour off the running time of his show.

Starting in 2019, TBS will pare down "Conan" from its current one-hour format to a brisk 30 minutes, which is in keeping with the length of single-host shows like the network's own "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" and Comedy Central's long-running "The Daily Show."

O'Brien is spinning the slimmed-down "Conan" as a reinvention of the hoary old late-night talk show format, which effectively hasn't changed since Johnny Carson popularized the monologue/skit/guest/guest/roaring sidekick structure in the early '60s on NBC's "Tonight Show."

"Since I inherited my 'Late Night' show in 1993, TV has changed exponentially," O'Brien said in a statement issued by TBS. "I'd like to think I have evolved with many of these changes, but now it's time to take the next leap."

O'Brien said the compressed format will allow the development of more pre-produced segments that do well online. "A half-hour show will give me the time to do a higher percentage of the comedy in, and out, of the studio that I love and that seems to resonate in this new digital world," O'Brien said. "It's still going to be me hosting a very silly show, but I want segments on my half-hour program to link to digital content, deepening the experience for my younger fans, and confusing my older ones."

"Conan" will continue to run four nights per week once the "less-structured 30-minute format" is rolled out next year.

While more politically-attuned late-night hosts like CBS' Stephen Colbert have been able to leverage the quotidian delights of the Trump era to boost their ratings, O'Brien's 11 p.m. show doesn't deliver much of a crowd. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, "Late Night" staggers along at the back of the late-night pack, averaging just shy of 400,000 viewers per telecast during the month of April. Of those tuning in, a little more than half are members of the adults 18-to-49 demo.

Back in 2010, when O'Brien first signed with Turner (and roughly 100 years ago in TV time), his show delivered millions of viewers per night.

If O'Brien's show is able to scare up around 250,000 advertiser-coveted viewers on a good night, the rest of the wee-hours crowd is having much greater success. Season-to-date, "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" is averaging 3.89 million viewers and a 0.6 in the demo, good for around 775,000 adults 18 to 49, while NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" is drawing 2.73 million viewers and a 0.67 rating (864,000 adults 18 to 49). ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" is currently averaging 2.3 million viewers, of whom around 630,000 may claim membership in the targeted demo.

Broadcast bigwigs aside, O'Brien's show also lags behind basic-cable offerings like "The Daily Show" and its own Wednesday night lead-in, "Full Frontal." Since the year began, Samantha Bee's politically-charged program is averaging 1.05 million viewers and around 465,000 adults 18 to 49.

Like everyone in the linear TV business who finds himself struggling with the ramifications of the Great Ratings Slide, O'Brien is looking for some measure of salvation in digital media. The comic's social media profile is robust; his personal Twitter account has 29.1 million followers, 5.82 million fans have subscribed to the Team Coco YouTube page and in November he started a live standup comedy show on Snapchat.

While the particulars of his show's enhanced digital efforts are still in the works, TBS noted that Team Coco would use the show's popular "Clueless Gamer" franchise as a model for future integrations and branded partnerships. The segments, which feature O'Brien and celebrity guests cracking wise as they play new and classic videogames, can draw anywhere between 2.5 and 9.4 million views. One of the most-watched "Clueless Gamer" bits was a "Game of Thrones"-themed session of Overwatch with Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey.

Upcoming digital developments will be built up around stand-up sets and other original material ginned up by O'Brien's traveling retinue of young comedians. O'Brien and the emerging comics will take to the road for a multi-city tour later this year.

"Conan's always been a fearless performer, and now, at the top of his form, I'm excited he's taking a gutsy step forward with us into new arenas," said Kevin Reilly, president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment.

On the traditional TV front, some of the highest-spending "Conan" advertisers include Lowe's, Taco Bell, AT&T Wireless, DirecTV, Burger King and State Farm, per data.

"This new venture with TBS will give me a platform to nurture exciting young talent and find the right place for their gifts in a crowded and chaotic landscape," O'Brien said. "My goal is to be Red Lobster, only instead of affordable seafood we make comedy, and every customer gets a bib. I wish I had thought this through."

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