The longest-serving host in late-night TV is preparing to leave behind some of the trappings for which late-night TV is known.
Conan O’Brien, who is slated to return to late-night in early 2019 with a revamped half-hour program on TBS, says he wants to have fewer guests who do nothing more than hype their latest movie or TV project and focus instead on creating moments during which viewers “can see me have fun.”
The comedian, who has held forth in late night on NBC and TBS for 25 years, says much of the traditional late-night TV format had its roots in TV’s earliest days and is no longer relevant to an audience that often watches comedy clips on phones and tablets. “They don’t watch ‘Saturday Night Live’ the way we watch ‘Saturday Night Live,’” he said of younger viewers. Talking to two or three guests and then telling the audience to tune in tomorrow “doesn’t make sense any more,” he said at an event Thursday.
He described a TV program that might be seen as a “linear” version of a taping that could also be seen online with extra footage of O’Brien talking to the audience and taking part in behind the scenes banter. The new program will have no band, he said, and be more “loose” and “playful” than his previous shows.
When it was suggesting his retooled program would be “leaner,” O’Brien replied: “I prefer ‘smaller cookie, more chocolate chips.’”
The move, O’Brien acknowledged, is likely to result in a “radical” reworking of his program – and, potentially, lead the way for other wee-hours mainstays to consider alternate means of presentation. TV executives have long complained about the growing digital audience these programs generate, because monetizing the audience is more difficult, But the face remains that late-night TV has a swelling fan base that largely watches clips of programs like “Late Night with Seth Meyers” or “The Daily Show” instead of tuning in to them at a set time each evening after the late local news.
O’Brien’s new show is not likely to take on additional political tones, he said, noting that other late-night shows are tilling that ground successfully. “That’s being handled, and so well,” he said. He intends to pursue a show that allows him to “create organic moments with guests” and bring to the fore more of his trademark humor. “I’m just trying to manufacture more of those,” he added.
He described a strategy that might allow fans to see him and his team in real time – with streaming-video allowing O’Brien and writers to comment on news and culture in the moment, rather than having to craft jokes or bits that are seen hours later on a linear broadcast. O’Brien said his younger fans are more enamored of that sort of thing, and don’t clamor for bits he was doing decades ago.
Digital viewing lets people see what they want as they want, O’Brien said. “I think the good stuff is seen by those who want to see it,” he said.