Will basic cable mean lesser guests for Conan O'Brien?*
For almost every talk show host, A-list guests set a program apart from its competition. Land the exclusive couch visit from George Clooney, and expect a flood of TV watchers to follow. Rivalries among the current crop of chatterers can be crazily competitive: If you want your biggest clients to grab an invitation from Oprah Winfrey, you better not book them on any other talk show first.
While hosting "The Tonight Show," O'Brien didn't always draw strong ratings among TV's insomniacs, but he did collect a steady stream of pop culture luminaries, particularly among music acts and up-and-coming actors. With O'Brien (who lost his NBC gig in January when the network returned prime-time washout Jay Leno to his former late-night slot) moving from a big network to cable television's TBS, his viewership could slip dramatically, even with TBS pledging to promote O'Brien's November launch aggressively.
This year, TBS is No. 7 among cable networks, averaging 1.7 million prime-time viewers, according to Nielsen Co. figures.
NBC, on the other hand, may be No. 3 among the major networks, but it still has an audience that's more than three times larger. [Update: A previous version of this post said NBC was last among major networks.]
Studio marketing executives say O'Brien won't necessarily enjoy the same priority as he did on "The Tonight Show" and his previous talk show, "Late Night," but he could still be a key destination for younger, hipper performers. Russell Brand, yes. Russell Crowe, no.
One executive says that if "The Tonight Show" suffered from poor lead-ins from NBC's anemic prime-time lineup, the situation will be even more dire at TBS, larded with reruns of shows such as "Seinfeld," "Family Guy" and "The Office." Did anyone even know that TBS already had a late-night talk show hosted by comedian George Lopez?
But another marketing guru says that if O'Brien's new show is good and the ratings are good, talent will follow. The best comparison, some say: Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," whose Jon Stewart welcomes a pretty impressive crop of cultural and political names. Let the booking begin.
-- John Horn
Photos: (from top) Conan O'Brien. Credit: Paul Drinkwater / NBC Universal
Russell Brand. Credit: Nancy Pastor / For the Los Angeles Times
Russell Crowe. Credit: Rick Rycroft / Associated Press