Conan O’Brien told the attendees at Variety’s TV Summit that he now realizes that he had a unique perspective on the changing face of latenight talk shows.
“I was standing on a fault line,” he said in his keynote conversation with Cynthia Littleton, Variety editor-in-chief, television. On one side was “traditional, old-time viewers”; on the other, “niche, social media driven, very vocal.”
O’Brien admits he wasn’t aware of Twitter at the time, but that all changed when the younger demographic “rose up in my defense,” he said. “I was crippled by my old world view of checking overnight ratings.”
During the blackout when he wasn’t allowed to communicate with the press , he was allowed to use social media — “I sent out one tweet and sold out the comedy tour,” he recalled. “I didn’t even know what the show was, and we sold out venues across America. To this day, it’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.”
That crash course in social media revolutionized his perspective — and what would become his latenight show on TBS. “I now live in a world where some of my most ardent fans don’t own televisions,” he said. “At first I was upset by that, and then I realized I had this freedom to reach them in new ways.”
His videos, he said, have brought him a range of new fans, from Kevin Hart and Ice Cube fans, to 45-year-old moms (from the American Girl store visits) to 8-year-old boys (from his video game reviews).
“Now when people get excited about something, they make it their own. They grab it, they share it with their friends. It’s a much more intimate experience.”
It also makes for a much more intimate experience with the host himself: “My fans are not passive,” he said. “They come up to me and hug me. They really do hug me. If I ask them, they’ll give me their bone marrow. I just throw it away.”
When David Letterman steps down, O’Brien will be the longest serving talk show host. “That’s absolutely hilarious to me,” he said, recalling the USA Today news story at the time that said he was going to be a disaster. and that no one knew who he was. He didn’t even have an official headshot at the time, and said people were taking photos of him off the TV screen.
The secret of his longevity, he said, is “staying loose.”
“I’m 21 years on the air — this is supposed to be the phase when I show up late, the Dean Martin phase,” he said. “I still feel like I’m fighting it out every day as I was in 1993.”
What’s had to change most of all, he said, are his own expectations.
“I came into this business at a high point, when people were put to bed by a talk show host,” he said, recalling his memories of bonding with his father over watching Johnny Carson. “I had this idea that I wanted to be that guy. I adjusted my dream. There was a period when I thought my dream had been smashed. But I realized my job is to entertain people and make them laugh.”
It’s not about ratings anymore, he said. “I don’t think one show does the number I did at NBC in the ’90s.”
O’Brien ended the session with praise for CBS’s choice of Stephen Colbert. “You can’t replace David Letterman, but there’s no better choice than Stephen Colbert,” he said. “He’s going to be absolutely fantastic. Les Moonves nailed it.”