Conan, Television, and the Hulu Effect

10 11 2009

Watching Conan O’Brien’s ratings plummet, I’ve been bothered that something was off.  Something in this story isn’t completely being told.

Jay Leno moves to 10 pm, Conan O’Brien moves into the coveted Tonight Show seat, and the net effect is that David Letterman moves into first place in the infamous late night ratings battle.

There are a number of other stories that could be told for the drop.  Jay Leno’s show is bad, especially compared to well-written (or even less outstanding) original programming.  A domino effect takes down NBC into a death spiral seems to be the common story.

What I want to focus on is the Hulu effect, namely the oncoming ability for people to access shows online, anytime.  Everyone knows media is moving online.

I am admittedly a Conan O’Brien fan.  However, by his own admission, late night television is a volume play.  And The Tonight Show has seemed to get off to a somewhat slow start in providing memorable moments.  Conan is a comic risk-taker, and it suits him (and David Letterman for that matter) less well than in his later time slot.

Although I haven’t yet collated supporting numbers (and I will share if I do), I believe it’s easy to show that Dave will continue to show strength in the older demographic.  Only time can tell if Conan can pull off the balance between alienating the base and bringing in new viewers. In another interpretation, it’s really shaky to believe that Conan is a mass audience comic like Jay Leno is – it’s pretty obvious that the show has a high young male bend (and Jimmy Fallon seems to be bending that way even further, but that’s another story).

The bigger story is the shift to online, or really more accurately, on-demand video sources.  Again, it’s easy anecdotally to tell the story that younger people have more options: the unlimited expanse of the Internet first and foremost, and interactive entertainment which is a $30++ billion behemoth in itself.

What I think is happening is the types of viewers Conan would attract will generally not watch him in volume live.  Too much to do, and I’d rather catch the episode on Hulu if I feel like it, or cherry pick favorite clips.  That, combined with the ADD, choice-filled nature of media these days, and aggregate viewer ratings no longer tell the full story.

And unless unified media analytics come to fruition that tell this story, it’s quite possible that Conan’s reach may stay underrated.

Whether the spread attention of the younger audience is really that much more valuable, that’s for television executives to find out and prepare for.  But I find this developing story surprisingly intertwining and may have more to say about it in the future.

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