NBC affils ponder Conan the unknown

Conan who?

NBC affiliates were asking the question Tuesday after the network selected Conan O’Brien, a virtually unknown 30-year-old producer for “The Simpsons,” as David Letterman’s successor on “Late Night” (Daily Variety, April 27).

The choice of an anonymous host for the highly visible late-night slot seemed odd to some affils — at least until they flashed back to February 1982, when another little-recognized performer launched NBC’s “Late Night” franchise.

There was plenty of bickering among affils when NBC offered Letterman “Late Night” following his disastrous foray into daytime television, a short-lived stint in which the acerbic comedian unsuccessfully sought to relate to housewives.

“Letterman was not real well known,” says NBC affiliates board chairman Jim Waterbury, general manager of KWWL-TV in Waterloo, Iowa. “He had no business being in daytime. We just thought he was bad. But they put him where a young, hip audience would find him and it turned out to be a great move.”

Proved wrong once, NBC affiliates aren’t rushing to make any negative pronouncements concerning the selection of O’Brien — particularly since the new host is the first choice of “Saturday Night Live” and new “Late Night” executive producer Lorne Michaels, who boasts an impressive track record of finding new talent.

“I think it is pretty exciting,” says Waterbury. “If the show turns out to be a hit, it will be a hit for the next 30 years (because O’Brien is so young) and we will continue with our late-night comedy franchise. And if its misses, big deal. We’ll get another chance.”

Taking a gamble

With O’Brien, Waterbury says NBC has chosen someone who is not safe, secure or dull. “Someone is taking a risk and I think that’s what network TV should be all about,” he says.

Although some programming reps suspect that NBC affils would have preferred a presold name like Garry Shandling, not all station exex agree.

John Serrao, general manager of high-profile NBC affil KCRA-TV in Sacramento, says he thinks Shandling would have been a poor choice.

Stick to cable

“I think he’s better off staying on cable,” he says, referring to the comedian’s critically acclaimed HBO series “The Larry Sanders Show.”

Despite the endorsements of O’Brien, many expect the pressure will intensify for affiliates to preempt “Late Night” with more profitable syndicated fare now that O’Brien has arrived. A few NBC affils are already delaying “Late Night” a half hour.

Woodbury expects NBC will have a tough job in preventing delays, saying that many affils “would do that because they like to make money”– especially the larger market affils, because they’re about the only stations that can generate advertising profits after 12:30 a.m.

Affils in the Central and Mountain time zones that air “Late Night” at 11:30 p.m., as well as a handful of large West Coast affils with early prime times, might also be tempted to take advantage of the situation, according to station programming reps.

But Waterbury warns that it would be “short-sighted” to take such an approach.

For markets outside the top-50, national and local spots aren’t worth that much past 12:30 a.m. But what “Late Night” lacks in profit-making potential, it makes up for in providing the network with press attention, word-of-mouth and the young-skewing comedy viewers — a prized commodity the Peacock web will need to help shake its last-place standing in the ratings.

Realistically, however, “Late Night” will probably have no more than a month to prove itself, says KCRA’s Serrao. The Sacramento station, the first West Coast affil to switch to a 7-10 p.m. primetime lineup, airs “Late Night” at midnight.

“In the first 30 days, its future will be spelled out,” he says.

KCRA will give O’Brien a shot at midnight “and then figure out what happens,” Serrao said. “He might be a find and a refreshing guy.”

Letterman vs. Leno

Although most attention is focused on “Late Night” in wake of the network’s announcement this week, affils remain primarily concerned about the impact of the pending matchup between CBS’ Letterman and “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno on the highly profitable 11:30 p.m. hour.

The consensus among affiliates and station reps is that “Tonight” would face the first downgrades in its history if Leno is unable to immediately fend off a ratings charge by Letterman.

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