Late-Night Revolution: How George Lopez Helped TBS's Guerrilla Warfare

By Giving Audiences What They Want, Cable Nets Pick Away at Broadcast Vanilla-Flavored Front Lines

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Doug Melville
Doug Melville
Now that the dust has settled on the late-night war -- now that Conan O' Brien has shocked everyone by signing with a cable network for a four-day-a-week talk show and Jay Leno is back in the rhythm -- one major question still remains: Who actually won? Or, better put, who will benefit the most from the drama that has unfolded over the past months?

The general consensus during the war was that Dave Letterman won, whose "Late Show" hit No. 1 after years of being second fiddle to "The Tonight Show." Letterman's karma points, 16 years in the making, appeared to have been cashed in for a lil Late Night Immunity after being stung by Leno in a similar shakedown in 1994.

But was he the real winner? Nope.

George Lopez
George Lopez
Consumers are only as good as their options, and late-night options on network TV aren't really full of variety. Between Letterman, Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan, Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon, network programming seems to have a whole lot of variations of the same mold. It seems like the networks are fighting the late-night battle like the British Red Coats during the American Revolution -- they are just walking tall and straight.

Cable, on the other hand, is fighting the late-night war like the American revolutionary soldier, younger, more aggressive and with an eye toward the future. They are exploiting holes in the front lines, sizing up the landscape, and slowly chipping away at the more powerful Red Coats. And the Commander in Chief of the Revolution is TBS executive Steve Koonin.

In November of 2009, after both Conan's "Tonight Show" and "The Jay Leno Show" hit the air in their new time slots, TBS did the unthinkable: It entered late night with original programming with George Lopez' "Lopez Tonight." In the shows first four weeks, it averaged 1.4 million viewers in 1 million households, delivering 33% growth for TBS during late night, and instantly becoming a hit with multicultural viewers (32% Hispanic and 26% African-American).

Fast forward to the present, and the show is still growing. General George Lopez found three angles the networks overlooked:

  1. Lopez talks directly to multicultural America, the fastest growing demo in the country, and he does so with a genuine voice.
  2. Lopez's guests and format are different, spontaneous and inclusive.
  3. Lopez is at a network that appreciates him and properly sets up his show with good lead-ins.
Now add in Conan O' Brian and his 2 million to 3 million nightly viewers. His comeback to TV will be the ultimate lead in. He will bring a huge following, press and the typical "comeback" media circus. If you add that with the opportunity to tap into the multicultural audiences, the positive effect Lopez is having on TBS has by far been the least covered story of the late-night war.

TBS, of course, isn't the only cable warrior in this battle. Look at "The Mo'Nique Show" on BET, "Chelsea Lately" on E!, and Adult Swim's popular "Robot Chicken" franchise, as well as Comedy Central's Emmy award-winning "Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" and you can see how the revolution is unfolding.

While other time slots, technologies and media have upgraded or evolved over the past 10 years, network late-night programming has been on a predictable path. The networks speak of ratings as disappearing -- as if into thin air -- when they should be talking about late-night ratings simply moving elsewhere, to cable. Cable TV has finally decided to do unto late night what its have been doing across prime time -- develop programming based on the audience, not based on the competition.

Thank you George Lopez for joining the fight.

Douglas L. Melville is currently the president of Red Carpet Runway and a strategic adviser for various entertainment brands and personalities.
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