Why Conan O’Brien Is Wrong: In the Age of TiVo & Hulu, Half an Hour Doesn’t Matter

No doubt about it, Conan O’Brien is peeved. The Tonight Show host spent the better part of last night’s episode making jokes about NBC’s (s GE) plans to give Jay Leno his late-night time slot back and in turn, push O’Brien’s start time to 12:05 a.m from 11:35 p.m. He struck a more serious tone in an open letter that was published today by the NYT’s Media Decoder. “The ‘Tonight Show’ at 12:05 simply isn’t the ‘Tonight Show,'” the statement read, adding that O’Brien would not be available for a later time slot if the network followed through with its plans.

This may sound like a classic old media spat, but O’Brien himself connected it to the newteevee world when he wrote: “Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the ‘Tonight Show,’ I believe nothing could matter more.” Sorry, Conan, but while I really empathize with your situation, I think you got this one wrong.

O’Brien’s logic goes something like this: People are used to watching the Tonight Show right after their local news broadcast; breaking this pair apart would hurt the Tonight Show, which he calls “the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” That’s good rhetoric, but it’s ignoring the fact that the world of broadcasting is already changing, and history is just that: different times that one can reminisce about, but not bring back.

Granted, there are still a substantial number of viewers tuning in live for their late-night TV fix, but those numbers have been on a slow but steady decline for years. DVR ownership, on the other hand, is up, and many folks are also recording Leno and Conan on their DVRs. Just consider data released by Tivo (s tivo) last year: Some 46 percent of Jay Leno’s Tivo-owning audience record the show for later viewing.

Such a percentage is less than that of scripted content shows, but it’s still significant, especially if you assume that time-shifting behavior is similar for owners of DVRs built by other brands. More than 30 percent of all U.S. households now own a DVR, according to a Nielsen report from last April. I know what you’re thinking: Less than half of these DVR owners time-shift Leno, so most tune in live, right? And if those numbers are even somewhat close to what NBC is seeing with the Tonight Show, how much of an impact can DVRs really have? Maybe O’Brien is right after all?

Hold your guns. The tricky thing with DVRs is that they don’t just time-shift one show, but break apart the whole line-up. Research from Nielsen and TiVo’s own numbers have shown that 50-60 percent of DVR viewers watch recordings of prime time shows on the same day such shows are first aired. Just not when these shows are scheduled, be it at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., but later. Which means that the Tonight Show is suddenly not only competing with programming on different networks, but also with NBC’s shows that ran earlier that day.

Add Hulu, with its hundreds of millions of video views per month, into the mix and you start see that time slots really do matter less than just a few years ago. More and more viewers are starting to watch what they want, when they want it, and moving a show to run half an hour earlier or later won’t make much of a difference to anyone but Conan himself.