Conan’s set as a TV strategy

Conan O’Brien’s TBS premiere last night is sitting on my DVR and waiting for a more formal viewing.  But from the clips I caught this morning, one thing is both apparent and unsurprising: O’Brien knows that he has a pale and ruddy complexion.  (I feel his pain.)  Check out this picture swiped from an AP story:

Note all the blue in his new set – a similar color scheme to his short-lived Tonight Show set.  This wasn’t just to save money – it’s an old trick for anyone who is going on TV.  Television lights are harsh, and tend to reflect badly off of white shirts, so many talking heads will make sure they have a blue shirt at the ready if called to do an on-camera interview.  This is even more true for people with pale skin like O’Brien (who frequently pokes fun at himself over his ultra-Irish tone).  Even something as seemingly minor as a blue shirt can have a dramatic impact on how an audience sees an on-air personality, and these visual cues are surprisingly important to the perception of the show’s content.

When O’Brien took over the Tonight Show – thus thrusting him in front of a new audience – the show’s producers likely recognized that they needed to do what they could to make the image that got beamed into the nation’s living rooms and bedrooms as visually appealing as possible.  Rather than settling for a blue wardrobe, they went for an entire set. With the stakes arguably even higher for his new endeavor, the blue set came with O’Brien to TBS.

One secret to social success

It’s a little silly, and it’s definitely mixed schtick, but Conversation Agent’s Top Ten Reasons Conan O’Brien’s Social Media Stuff is Better than Yours has a few kernels of truth:

7.   Conan is having fun; you’re “engaging” customers…

6.   Conan’s staff is on a mission; yours has a mission statement…

3.   Conan’s team started their social media effort three months prior to launch. You started yours three days after launch.

As O’Brien counts down to his basic-cable resurrection, his promotional team is smartly using social media tools to catch a wave of excitement from the comic’s rabid following.  Much like the 2008 Obama campaign, they are playing off fan-generated imagery.  But at the heart of it, O’Brien and his team are just trying to make people laugh and have fun, and let that shine through.

The pursuit of success in online tactics has to flow from a genuine enthusiasm.  Campaigns – for both candidates and issues – often see their social strategies fail because they try to adapt their campaign to online tactics, rather than adapting online tactics to the campaign.

3 Reasons why Conan made the right move

The internets lit up as soon as the announcement hit (which, oddly enough, happened on Dave Letterman’s birthday): Conan O’Brien is headed to TBS as soon as his contractually obligated silence is up.  The basic cable station won out over Fox, which was the place O’Brien was widely rumored to head since it was first announced that NBC was bumping him out of the 11:30 time slot. That led to some head scratching, though it makes a lot of sense for three big reasons:

1.  Turner properties offer valuable opportunities for cross-promotion. O’Brien was always positioned as the host with the younger audience, and Turner is well positioned to reach that audience. Not only does TBS airs three hours of Family Guy on Monday nights (leading right into the time slot O’Brien will occupy), but Turner’s cable properties have been at the forefront of providing television-quality online video – first with the now-defunct website SuperDeluxe and now on both and

The real underrated asset in this deal isn’t online though – it’s the cross-promotional opportunity with Cartoon Network, whose Adult Swim shares some of the same audience as O’Brien.  While it would appear that sets up a tough intra-company competition, that isn’t exactly the case because of the second reason TBS and O’Brien are a great fit.

2.  TBS offers time slot flexibility no other network will. This isn’t just about getting a half-hour jump on Jay Leno and Dave Letterman; Fox could offer the 11:00 p.m. time slot, too.   But after the 11:00 showing of O’Brien’s show, and the 12:00 airing of George Lopez’s program, TBS will have the 1:00 p.m. time slot to fill.

What’s going on at 1:00 a.m.?  Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night show and Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show have moved from comedy bits into guests.  Comedy Central is replaying their 11:00-midnight programming (The Daily Show and the Colbert Report).  Adult Swim is getting into its final hour, which features shorter cartoons that aren’t as popular as Family Guy and Robot Chicken – and, let’s be honest, really target the stoner market (have you ever tried to make sense of 12 oz. Mouse?).  And remember those hypothetical college kids who media analysts claimed stayed out too late to catch O’Brien’s Tonight Show?  The 1:00 a.m. slot is a lot closer to last call.

On TBS, O’Brien could wind up with two chances to rope in an audience – so even if more people watch Leno between 11:30 and midnight, O’Brien has a better chance to snag viewers from 11:00-11:30 p.m. and 1:00-2:00 a.m., rack up big viewership numbers, and claim victory on sheer volume even while Leno wins the 11:30 time slot.

3.  TBS straddles the line between cable and network television. This is important because, for as edgy as O’Brien is credited as being, he’s quite traditional in many ways.  With a pedigree in Saturday Night Live, the Tonight Show, the Simpsons, and even Late Night, O’Brien’s signature projects have counted their runs in decades rather than seasons.

TBS is pretty much a network television station in two important ways.  First, its mix of original and syndicated programming mimic most Fox affiliates.  The big difference is that TBS is still searching for signature, cornerstone shows to build a prime time schedule around as Fox found with Married with Children in the late 1980s and the Simpsons in the early 1990s.  (Notably, Fox built a solid prime time audience but could never keep them around for late night; TBS seems to be building in the opposite direction.)  Second, TBS is nearly ubiquitous – among the most basic of basic cable stations.

At the same time, cable (even basic cable) offers some level of freedom that escapes over-the-air network television.  Being on cable at 11:00 may offer the same creative outlet as being on at 12:30 on network television, when O’Brien shined to begin with.

TBS offers these benefits with a final caveat: because it’s cable, measures of success will be different.  It will be easier to become the top-rated original program in TBS’s history than to hold that same position with Fox. After all, the difference between victory or defeat is often a matter of expectations met or missed.


The official logo of Conan O’Brien’s upcoming Legally Prohibited from Being Funny On Television tour is based on the now-familiar illustration of a stoic O’Brien standing against the American flag, gray but for the bold orange pompadour rising from his head like a mighty wave rising from the ocean.  It may be the icon of Team CoCo, but it didn’t come from Team CoCo: the graphic was created by Mike Mitchell, an enthusiastic artist who had nothing to do with O’Brien other than being an avid fan with an idea and some spare time.

Largely on the back of the massive outpouring of support he enjoyed in the final weeks of his Tonight Show run, O’Brien stands to make a lot of money wherever he lands this fall.  O’Brien will be rewarded for embracing that organic excitement.  It’s similar to the smart moves made by the 2008 Obama Campaign, which enjoyed the creation of a similar iconic image created by Shepherd Fairey – an enthusiastic artist who had nothing to do with the campaign, but had an idea and some spare time.

A technical term for this is “advocate-generated content.”  Even that mouthful is easier said than done.  You can’t force people to identify with a cause, let alone feel so strongly about it that they are willing to make art.  Both Team CoCo and Obama 2008 benefited from a simple, direct, and resonant message.  The fancy artwork was just a symptom.

CoCo and the Online Campaign

New England hasn’t seen an upset like Scott Brown’s win since Superbowl 42 – and much of the credit deservedly goes to his campaign’s ability to harness support from Republicans across the country through online organizing and remote phone banks. Compare that to the other online campaign making news lately: the “I’m with CoCo” movement supporting deposed Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien.

While O’Brien cleverly positioned himself to the People of Earth, the online effort to build support has not been effective – even though it has translated to angry mobs descending on NBC affiliates calling on O’Brien to keep his current gig.  The shortcoming?  The online movement – which appears largely viewer-generated – isn’t focusing on activities which will affect NBC’s bottom line.

Scott Brown’s online efforts were all geared to mobilize voters and volunteers who could drive more voters to the polls.  Outside of fraud and cheating, winning more voters is the easiest way to win an election.

NBC counts votes in two ways: ratings and, more importantly, advertising dollars.  A more effective CoCo Movement might target Tonight Show advertisers, warning them of boycotts.  A well-publicized action against a current Jay Leno sponsor might be a good shot across the bow.

Johnny Carson’s old chair is not “The People’s Seat.”  Rallies and large Facebook groups may snag short-term media attention, but NBC feels like they can win more “votes” with Jay Leno behind the Tonight Show desk and until the CoCo movement translates into viewers and dollars, nothing will dissuade them.