Conan O'Brien ends final NBC's 'Tonight Show' with over 7 million viewers - now he can be edgy again
Sunday, January 24th 2010
In the last two weeks we've seen Conan O'Brien become himself again.
We saw him stand up to his bosses and win - sort of.
We also saw the guy be funny in ways he wasn't for most of the seven months he hosted "The Tonight Show."
Now that he's free from NBC, he's got to use that same intestinal fortitude - and comic genius - to create his next opportunity.
Armed with a load of cash, and the benefit of time, O'Brien needs to get back to what made him desirable in the first place - edgy comedy targeted at a younger audience.
Not the kind of stuff he did for most of his seven-month run on "Tonight," but what he did for nearly 17 years on NBC's "Late Night."
O'Brien was different at 11:35 p.m. than he was an hour later, and that's a downside to broadcast TV.
"That's the problem you always face," says analyst Bill Carroll of the Katz Media Group. "We want you for who you are and now we make you who we want you to be."
Reaching a mass audience means softening the edges, a bit, which O'Brien did.
"Every comedian dreams of hosting the 'Tonight Show' and, for seven months, I got to," O'Brien said near the end of his last show Friday night. "I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second."
Viewers, however, may argue that what they saw was somehow different, at least up until the end, when all bets were off - and O'Brien's ratings soared.
And his final show didn't disappoint. It attracted more than 7 million viewers, according to preliminary numbers released by Nielsen, clobbering David Letterman's 2.8 million viewers and Jimmy Kimmel's 1.4 million.
Part of O'Brien's exit talks with NBC centered on who gets the "intellectual property" rights to stuff he and his team created in his run there. One most often mentioned was the Masturbating Bear, a guy in a bear costume who, well, enough said.
The bear was a huge hit with O'Brien's "Late Night" crowd, yet, wasn't used on "Tonight" for the first time until Wednesday, when, frankly, it was too late.
The point is that while he's losing the bear in the $45 million divorce with NBC, O'Brien has a chance to get something bigger back - his sense of humor.
"The networks never really counter-program in late-night," Brad Adgate, a senior vice president at Horizon Media said of O'Brien's options now that he left NBC. "I would offer his 'Late Show' [the next time]. To do something that's exactly what Leno and Letterman are offering, I don't know if that's what viewers want."
Fox officials have said they're interested in O'Brien. And Fox, no doubt, can provide marketing muscle and reach. Anyone doubting that should look at the way Fox promotes "American Idol" to the point that you half-expect Simon Cowell to anchor the news alongside Ernie Anastos.
Going the broadcast route might provide the most money, and audience reach, but that could be a mistake.
O'Brien would be better off going to a cable network where he could push the boundaries of content and further unleash his creative spirit in ways broadcast networks could never provide.
O'Brien appropriately ended his last "Tonight Show" with an all-star rendition of "Freebird," a song that includes the line, "Cause I'm as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change."
He had changed on "Tonight." And, in many ways, though he was leaving, in the end it was good to see an old friend emerge in O'Brien - the same one we'd like to see back in the fall.