Conan O'Brien's TBS Deal: The New Math of Late-Night TV

Last Updated Apr 13, 2010 10:09 AM EDT

Should we have been quite so surprised that Conan O'Brien signed a deal for a late-night show, not with the widely-rumored Fox, but instead with cable network TBS?

Actually, no. Bill Carter of The New York Times called the news "a shocker." But if you take a look at the state of network television, a cable deal was always more likely than a broadcast one. Ironically enough, it seems that in speculating endlessly about Fox, many people (including me), fell into the old thinking about TV that got Conan into his late-night mess in the first place. What old thinking? Namely, the idea that it makes sense for the broadcast networks to bet big on someone, like O'Brien, who caters toward a younger audience that doesn't give a rat's ass about broadcast TV.

So, here's the calculus. If O'Brien had gone to Fox -- and the affiliates no doubt did their own depressing math on this -- he would have put himself in a similar position to what he faced at NBC. In other words, instead of being a boon to the network and its affiliates, he might have found that, once again, he was Conan the Affiliate-Killer, potentially getting lower ratings than the syndicated shows that usually play on Fox in the 11 p.m. time slot that he would have taken.

True, by starting a half hour earlier, he would've gotten a leg up on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "The Late Show with David Letterman," but when you look at the demos, you have to ask: "A leg up on what?" A rundown of Leno's return to "Tonight," that appeared in the Times yesterday morning, serves like a primer on the current state of late night.

Though Leno's ratings are up by 50 percent over O'Brien's, his current audience skews much older, with an average age of 56, compared to 46 when O'Brien helmed "Tonight." This might not matter if advertisers didn't remain so obsessed with the youth market, but the fact remains that they'd much rather advertise to the 18-49 demographic, and especially the 18-34s, than they would to people in their mid-50s. Letterman's audience, though somewhat smaller and a tad younger, has the same general contours. The average audience is in fact, shockingly old for all network late-night TV shows these days. The youngest skewing, per the Times article, is "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," average age ... 50!

Meanwhile, the two leading shows from 11 p.m. to midnight, among men, age 18-34, are Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report." Even if that presents O'Brien with an extremely tough competitive set, cable is where he was meant to be. He joked in a statement about the TBS move: "In three months I've gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I'm headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly." Looking at his situation using the old math, it might appear that O'Brien is a loser. But using the new math, O'Brien's TBS deal adds up to something much more.

Previous coverage of Conan O'Brien at BNET Media: