Having done it twice in the last year and a half, “Conan” exec producer Jeff Ross knows a thing or two about mounting a large-scale late night talk show.
But as Conan O’Brien and company prepare to launch their new TBS yakker this Monday, things are a little different this time around.
For one thing, Ross and O’Brien are doing the work pretty much on their own. There’s no broadcast network machine driving the creation of their show, other than a few words of encouragement from the Turner brass.
Team Coco is also creating their own franchise from scratch for the first time, rather than inheriting a legacy program — and all the baggage, both good and bad, that comes with filling some large David Letterman- or Johnny Carson-sized shoes.
Then there’s the evolving nature of O’Brien himself. The now-bearded host takes on this show after somewhat reinventing himself this summer via a visible web presence and his nationwide comedy tour. (That beard may finally be set free on Monday, stay tuned.)
And oh yeah, there was that thing that happened at NBC this past January — the famed Peacock late night debacle that Ross now refers to as “The Situation” (apologies to a certain “Jersey Shore” star).
As the whole world knows by now, NBC’s attempts to keep both Jay Leno and O’Brien in the fold by shifting “Tonight Show” to midnight and Leno to 11:35 didn’t sit well with the Conan camp — and led to his quick departure (and a settlement deal worth approximately $45 million) after just seven months as host of “The Tonight Show.”
Fast forward ten months later. For Ross, this has been in some ways the most difficult launch he’s endured, as he’s had to create a show from whole cloth. Yet that independence has also made this debut the most liberating.
Ross took a moment from a busy pre-liftoff to talk about the new show and yes, that NBC “Situation”:
You’re in launch mode for the second time in a little over a year. How would you compare starting your own franchise to taking over a storied one?
We don’t feel any less pressure. The pressure is more put on ourselves than by others or the “situation.” It’s been a little easier dealing with a leaner group of people to get things done, like building out a studio. We only have ourselves to deal with here; there’s nobody telling us how it’s supposed to be done.
So there’s no TBS exec on set, giving you notes?
The whole ramping-up process has been all on us. All the Turner guys have told us, “Listen, you know how to do this, you’ve done this before, just go do what you do.”
How much smaller is your team on “Conan”?
The staff is a little bit smaller but not significantly smaller. Having a little less money to produce the show is a little liberating in a way, as some decisions are made for you.
The way the whole show, the whole physical plant had to be laid out. The options were a little more limited. As opposed to when the network is in there, when it was NBC, not that it was an open checkbook, but they wanted (‘The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien’) to go on for years and years and be perfect. We don’t have that luxury.
It also tends to be the way those large companies (like NBC) do things; it’s more expensive. Here, you can sit down with a small group of people and go through your expenses and figure out, OK, what’s the best and most efficient way to do this.
When you’ve making decisions yourself and it’s your money, then you tend to take a lot more time grieving over the details.
So you’re having to act a lot more like a CEO than you’ve ever had to.
Yeah, that’s true.
Does that make it tough to focus on the content?Hopefully the physical part of it is done. Now it’s down to focusing on the important things: Asking ourselves, what is the show? At the end of the day, if we don’t have the best camera you can buy, it’s not going to make this stuff any funnier. Now we have to deal with what’s important: the content.
How will the show be different this time out, and how have the last few months — be it the Conan tour, or his Twitter account — affect it?
All those things will affect it. The whole social media world will affect things in a big way, I’m sure. We’re already looking at doing various things on the show that might integrate well with the use of social media. And we’re trying to make the website more dynamic, and not just a marketing site.
The tour has an effect on it, just based on the way we designed the studio, like a small theater. And I think it will affect Conan’s attitude toward the show because he probably used some muscles during that three-month tour that he hadn’t really used before.
And then there’s the “situation,” the obvious jokes about what the situation is — going to basic cable, being on TBS, that sort of thing.
This is not a pre-existing franchise like ‘The Tonight Show.’ Is that liberating? Are you tackling this launch differently than last year?
You don’t have that hanging over your head. We were dealing with the mantle that David Letterman built, and then we moved on to the mantle that Johnny Carson built.
Is there some truth to the criticism that you played it too safe in taking over the “Tonight Show”? Did the debate over what is a Conan “Tonight Show” hamper you in the beginning?
The travesty in that whole episode is, these are the types of shows that need to evolve over a period of time. The “Tonight Show” that we were doing five months in was not going to be the “Tonight Show” we would have been doing a year in. Because you evolve, you figure things out as you go. We did that on the “Late Night” show and it evolved into something that worked. The same thing would have happened with “The Tonight Show,” but you need that time to do it. The same thing will happen here.
How might the NBC “situation” be addressed?
The end of the “Tonight Show” we were dealing with what was going on, it was in the public eye, it was in the pop culture. We’re going to be dealing with stuff that’s in the public eye and pop culture going forward on this show, but it won’t be something that was happening to us. Will it evoke some of the things that happened over those last two weeks? I’m sure it will, those things will come up. It is the situation and people are expecting Conan to deal with it, but it’s not going to be the driving force of the show.
We’ve now heard from Conan on how he dealt with the events of January. But how did you handle it? What was going on with you at that point?
The only thing I can compare it to is that first year or two when we were doing the “Late Night” show in 1993. It was so crazy and stuff was blowing up every day. You had to deal with things so quickly and make decisions so quickly based on what we were going to do and how are we going to handle it. (“Late Night with Conan O’Brien” was famously renewed in short 13-week intervals during its early run, and was nearly canceled at one point.)
It’s sort of surreal, there’s so much going on you just have to get through it. It’s a funny thing. Every now and then I have trouble sleeping. But during that period in a weird way I had no trouble sleeping. And I think that was because of the conviction we had with the decisions we were making and the direction we were going. When you have conviction about what you’re doing, it makes it a little bit easier to handle.
We knew pretty quickly what our fate was going to be; it was just a question of how we were going to deal with it. And we did the best we could.
Then, to add to the surreal nature of it all, NBC went and picked up a show (“Outlaw”) from Conaco.
They ordered the pilot when we were still doing shows and things had blown up already. I don’t even know what to think, my only response was, ‘They must really like it.’ It’s business.
Now that you’ve moved on, what’s your relationship with NBC?
It’s a case by case thing. I don’t want to get into it.
Do you forsee any issues with NBC over intellectual property? (NBC has said it won’t put up a fight if O’Brien dusts off old features like the Masturbating Bear or “In the Year 3000” — with the notable exception of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, which network insiders said won’t be allowed to move over.)
I don’t know. They’ve made overtures in the press that they would be OK with it but we haven’t gotten there yet. It hasn’t come up.
What do you think when you see Leno’s numbers trending down, and in some cases now lower than Conan’s ratings from a year ago?
I have mixed feelings about that.
It sounds like you and Conan have moved on, that you’ve got this new show and no longer want to dwell in the past.
Right after the last show, did you feel the need to get back on the air quickly?
Nothing happens that quickly. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “We’ve got to work, we’ve got to make a living.” We were not so sure at that point what it was going to be. I was hoping and thinking there was probably a market to do another show somewhere. We knew Fox was a possibility. They were showing some interest. It was very interesting, and we took it day at a time.
And almost immediately after the last show, we were dealing with the tour. A bunch of us didn’t have a break at all after the show ended. We were talking to Fox during that period of time, and then TBS came in. That all happened very quickly.
And when TBS came along, was there any hesitation?
It was more like, “This is interesting.” We did the network thing for 17 years. If we had a good opportunity elsewhere, why not try something different.
How important was it to now own your own show?
That was never a driving force. I don’t know if that would have happened if we had gone to Fox. The driving force was looking for a home where we could we do a show we wanted to do in a way we could enjoy doing it. Not that we wouldn’t enjoy doing a show at Fox, but we thought, This is different, and maybe we should try something different. And the future seems to be in cable. (After) 17 years of watching the ratings decline in broadcast late night, and you think, ‘I dunno, maybe it is time to make that change.’
What is your competition at 11 p.m. on TBS?
Everything, everybody. There’s so much competition now. In a way you were dealing with the same problem at 11:30 or 12:30 on a broadcast network. There was a period of time before CBS and ABC had late night shows, when I remember looking at the local market ratings and you’d see that reruns of “Cheers” were doing bigger numbers than any of the late night shows were doing. And that was bigger competition.
Is there a fear that younger viewers haven’t embraced a talkshow format, and that viewers under 25 won’t get into the habit?
I think it’s more that they’re all over the place. They’re watching so many things, they’re on their computer… it’s just a question of, how do you get enough of them on a nightly basis to watch?
How is Andy’s role changing? By the end of “The Tonight Show” he was back on the couch and a bona fide side kick once again.
And that’s the way it’s going, yes.
And what happened with Max and the decision to part ways? There was a lot of speculation that it wasn’t amicable.
No, there’s no intrigue really. It was a mutual decision and we only wish the best for Max. He’s got other stuff going on, he’s got his stuff with Bruce.
Have the booking wars returned?
We’re getting good guests so far, so I haven’t sensed any booking wars yet. You pretty much find your place in the pecking order based on ratings.
Was there ever a thought of doing something radical, let’s blow up the whole genre and remake talk TV?
When we started we talked about doing that. I’m sure a lot of hosts when they started in the past 15 years said they were going to blow it up and reinvent it. But you can’t reinvent the wheel, you have to put your own spin on it. And we’ve been doing it for a long time. This will be another evolution in the Conan O’Brien talkshow.