How do you reinvigorate a populist comedy uprising that's settled into a complacent lull? Try hiring a blimp, tricking it out with interactive Internet gadgets, and flying it across country. Or perhaps hire a man in a taco suit to dance in front of a live Web cam. Maybe even stuff a stunt car full of popcorn and fireworks and drive it off a cliff.
Conan O'Brien and his new bosses at the Atlanta-based cable network TBS have tried all those stunts—and more—in recent weeks as part of an all-out marketing push to reignite interest in O'Brien's imminent migration to one of the less-edgy networks on cable. The target of this marketing quirkfest is potential viewers, particularly those who frequent Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Being the late-night headliner at TBS, the erstwhile "Superstation" that was long the purveyor of I Love Lucy reruns and the television home of the Atlanta Braves, is a bit of a comedown from O'Brien's former chair at NBC's (GE) The Tonight Show, the top comedic venue on broadcast TV. That perch brought household-name status to the likes of Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno—and steady profits to the coffers of the Peacock Network for decades. But in today's fragmented media market, comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who appear on Viacom's (VIA.B) Comedy Central, have shown that the big broadcast networks no longer have a lock on late-night eyeballs.
TBS, which according to The Daily Beast is paying O'Brien $10 million to $15 million annually, is betting it can get similar results from the red-headed comic's 11 p.m. nightly show, Conan, which makes its debut on Nov. 8. "Conan is arguably the biggest broadcast celebrity to come to cable," says Steve Koonin, president of Time Warner's (TWC) Turner Entertainment Networks, which include TNT and TBS. "You look at a lot of networks—they have good shows, but they don't mean something. I'm not talking ratings; I'm talking identity. By aligning with Conan, it gives us an identity that instantly equals comedy, which is what we're trying to be. We think Conan is one of the best brand enhancers in all of television."
O'Brien and longtime sidekick Andy Richter have been on TV hiatus since January when, amid lackluster ratings, NBC executives cut short O'Brien's brief tenure as The Tonight Show's host. The nasty public parting, which cost NBC an exit package estimated to be worth roughly $45 million, touched off a frenzied public backlash. Along the way, O'Brien emerged as a folk hero for the social media set. Google's (GOOG) YouTube exploded with clips of fellow comedians supporting O'Brien and mocking his predecessor-turned-successor and sometimes nemesis, Jay Leno. Fans marched in protest outside of NBC. They uploaded triumphant photos from their Conan love-ins on Tumblr. They pledged allegiance to "Team Coco" on Facebook. O'Brien grew a beard and kept in touch with the faithful on Twitter.
Now, some nine months later, TBS is attempting to revive the Team Coco fervor. Over the summer, TBS kicked things off with a series of 30-second TV spots featuring the chorus from the John Waite song Missing You and images of lovelorn fans coping with their bereavement in unusual ways—such as a despondent fellow spelling out "Conan" with the letters in his bowl of alphabet soup.
In late September, TBS unleashed the full campaign. During TBS's annual coverage of the Major League Baseball playoffs, the network provided aerial views of the games, courtesy of a big, orange Conan-TBS-branded blimp. Online, fans could follow the blimp's movements, look at constantly updated photos, and interact with fellow O'Brien fans by "checking into" the blimp on location-based social network Foursquare. There was even a 24-hour Coco Cam on the Web streaming live video of Conan and his crew making odd preparations for the new show.
The rollout was designed to maximize Conan's visibility on the Web. So ads featuring the blimp—like the print ads in Vanity Fair, the photo shoot of O'Brien posing with a European barn owl, and the music video of O'Brien soaping up his desk in slow motion—were cross-posted on a handful of Conan-centric websites, including teamcoco.com, a Facebook page, and a YouTube channel. One reason for the Web focus: O'Brien's popularity with younger viewers. "Here's a guy, Conan, who is in his 40s who attracts audiences in their 20s and 30s, competing against guys in their 60s who attract audiences that are virtually the same age," says Koonin. "The audience should be the youngest in late night. That's what advertisers crave."
Since introducing its "Very Funny" tag line in 2004, TBS has grown into one of the top-rated channels on cable, thanks in large part to the network's acquisition and repackaging of proven comedy series, such as Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Office, and Family Guy. Despite the network's success, TBS is still largely perceived as an accidental destination—a place people stumble on while channel surfing, not a go-to place for original programming, says Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Turner executives hope Conan's arrival could change that. "There may be some college students who will discover what number TBS is on their cable dial for the first time because they want to watch Conan," says Thompson. "Comedy Central has demonstrated that late night is no longer just the purview of the broadcast networks," he adds. "Late night is potentially a cash cow."
A recent study by Advertising Age estimated that in 2009, CBS's (CBS) The Late Show with David Letterman earned $271 million in ad revenue; NBC's The Tonight Show brought in $175.9 million; and ABC's (DIS) Jimmy Kimmel Live! earned $138.1 million. Time Warner Chairman Jeffrey Bewkes in August boasted that TBS was already getting ad rates for Conan on par with its late-night competitors.
O'Brien's move to cable sets up a potential showdown against Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart followed by The Colbert Report. So far this television season, according to Nielsen research, The Daily Show has averaged 1,948,000 total viewers. During the final, frenzied week of O'Brien's NBC run, The Tonight Show averaged 5.3 million viewers. So do TBS execs think O'Brien is going to trounce Stewart? "Conan is top of the class," says Koonin diplomatically. "We think his ratings will be extremely competitive with late night both on broadcast and cable." No potshots from the blimp just yet.
The bottom line: Cable network TBS is courting younger viewers on the Web for its new late-night show featuring Conan O'Brien.