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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.

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

  1. Jay Leno is ok, but Not real funny to me. But Conan is not funny at all. I can’t believe he is being paid all that money. Conan can’t fill Lenos shoes. I think that Leno should go back to the Tonight Show and Conan should go back to writing. Conan is not funny and just does not have the timing.

  2. wow! i can’t believe you made such a strong statement to which i’m finding myself compelled to reply.

    did you completely overlook the following :

    • some people actually have to go to bed in order to get up for 7am. half an hour makes a huge difference.
    • the show is a topical show. its relevance is dramatically reduced if people don’t watch it until the next day.
    • you can only timeshift forward in time. you can’t timeshift backwards.
    • many people only watch these late night shows habitually – perhaps before bed or just because the news has just been on. they’ll watch it if its on, but aren’t really too bothered about it one way or the other. ratings doesn’t reflect this phonomena

    now when you can view a show BEFORE it is supposed to air i’ll maybe start listening to you. after all none of these shows is live.

    or perhaps the solution is to bring EVERYTHING back half an hour so all those DVR users can watch what they want when they want to – oh wait a minute – that didn’t work did it…

    1. Advertising rates are considerably higher 11:35-12:00 than from 12:00 onwards. There’s no way Conan would be allowed to produce the same show at the same budget with such a big drop in revenue.

    2. Leno is a lousy lead-in for Conan. His ratings will go down, which will even further erode the revenue his show makes.

    3. All the big names will want to book on Leno’s show, leaving Conan in the same position re: guests as he was in his old job. Again: further ratings & revenue erosion.

    Perversely, NBC did him a favor by offering him such a bad deal he has no choice but to turn it down.

  3. One thing that people probably don’t DVR very much is the local news. People who want to know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow probably aren’t interested in finding out tomorrow evening.

    That makes it one of the Networks’ only non-DVR-friendly pieces of content. And lead-in has always been THE primary way for networks to drive viewership to their programming (and thus justify their existence.)

    The Tonight Show lead-in is very valuable (not to mention traditional)…and I understand Conan not being interested in losing that.

    But, whatever, I say he should just come over to YouTube and do five five-minute shows throughout the day and get more viewers than he’s ever had in his life.

    Less venerable, certainly. But more exciting!

  4. Simply put, The Tonight Show audience doesn’t watch Hulu. Conan fans may intersect with Hulu watchers, but the traditional audience for the program “The Tonight Show” doesn’t really intersect with the “I watch TV online” crowd.

  5. Relax, people, I didn’t say that time slots don’t matter anymore, just that they matter less than just a few years ago, and I stand by that.

    As for all those people arguing that Leno failing at 10pm is proof that time slots are what it’s all about:, I’d recommend to read this:

    Leno didn’t do worse at 10pm than he did at 11.35, but he also didn’t do better. Conan improved moving to 11.35, but didn’t get Leno’s ratings, and one could as easily make the case that he improved because of the show, not the time slot.

    In the end, personalities matter more than time slots, and that’s what this is all about: A battle of personalities. No wonder emotions are running so high.

  6. Yeah, agreeing with essentially everyone else here, this is really a silly post. I’d like to imagine it’s mostly Janko’s ignorance talking, but the more I read, the more I had to question whether Janko has any brains. The second to last paragraph doesn’t even make sense. I’m not sure what ideas are being brought together to make a point, or even what the point is in that paragraph.

    But I digress. The core notion of this post is just silly.

    • at least he is acknowledging that timeshifting can only play a show back AFTER it has recorded. a point that i think needed clarification after what he had already written before that.

  7. No room on my DVR for late night comedians, if I miss it, I’ve missed it and don’t feel I’ve missed anything. Attempts at time shifting result in deletion without watching.

    To be fair though, they might as well put a Discover or History channel logo on my DVR. There’re only a couple of broadcast network shows that end up there.

    I’ve watched Leno’s show.. when I remember to turn the TV on.

  8. Stuart Michaels

    Can’t resist adding my voice here. DVR’s let you skip ads, reducing ad effectiveness and lowering ad costs. Hulu doesn’t make up for ad revenue lost from broadcast. Moving the Tonight Show out of the slot it has held for literally decades is not only a foolish notion, it’s a stupid move on NBC’s part. Besides, why punish Conan, Fallon and Carson with moving back when Leno’s show is what’s causing friction with the affiliates?

    NBC owed it to Conan to give him more time, and instead are putting their money behind their favorite horse, Leno. Fine. Let’s see Conan move to Fox and become a Leno competitor rather than his next in line. Then we’ll really see if timeslot matters.

  9. I hate to add another “I totally disagree too” argument to the mix, but I want to mention another thing (I agree with pretty much all the above comments).
    Having produced podcasts for 5 years now, one thing became very clear as online content grew. People are still trained to listen on a schedule, EVEN ONLINE. Ask Leo Laporte, Kevin Rose, or any number of regular online content producers about what kind of angry response they get if they don’t release their shows on the same date each week. I personally have gotten angry emails about releasing my podcast 2 hours late!
    Consuming media that has any hint of regularity is still bound to most people’s expectation of a schedule and is independent of the ability to time-shift the content.

  10. I disagree with this article on two fronts:

    1.) Like everyone else is saying, DVRs aren’t yet owned by everyone. Also, and quite unfortunately, their numbers don’t account for much. Same goes for series when they’re streamed online. There has definitely been a shift toward making the shows more accessible at a later time, but it doesn’t quite count yet.

    2.) Also, Conan’s right about the Tonight Show not being the same thing when it’s shifted to a later time. In part due to the legacy and connection to the news but also literally due to the time. If the show airs at 12:05 a.m., it’s no longer tonight – it’s tomorrow.

  11. Dilip Andrade

    Count me in with all of those who disagree. While the timeslot may matter less than it used to, and will continue to decrease in value as habits change, there is still a lit of value in the slot.

    Yout views on value are skewed because too many of the people around you are time shifting. Your peer group isn’t representative.

    Additionally, you ignore the idea that there’s ego involved. This is Carson’s show, and I’m told it was Jack Benny’s before that. Conan wants a chance to make it his. It’s about history and continuity. there’s an intangible value to those things. The dinner time news wouldn’t be the same at 4:00 even though you could TiVo it and show it during dinner.

    Finally, delaying a show in this day and age still has an impact. I can’t timeshift something to a spot earlier than it’s earliest broadcast. He loses the crowd that tunes in for the monologue and drifts off during the interviews. Recording a show and watchingnit later that nightnis one thing, bit take it from my experience late nivhtntalk show don’t seem all that good the next morning over breakfast… They lose something in the delay.

  12. You know Janko, I think you just might be from a place and at an age where they don’t and you don’t watch the local news. But believe it or not many local car dealerships, furniture stores and other small businesses depend on late night TV to drive sales.

    There are still quite a few people in the U.S. that don’t have TiVo’s or iPhones and to them Hulu sounds like a different version of Hula. They still have regular TVs and they still have lots of money to spend on groceries, appliances and insurance.

    Sure they will have DVRs someday, maybe even this year, but for now, for those people who aren’t connected like you and me and the rest of the folks who read NewTeeVee and live in a New Media Bubble, late night time slots matter.

  13. Couldn’t disagree more. You’re saying that one of the most sought-after time slots in television doesn’t matter. Which is false. Do you really think advertisers that are spending money on the show are doing so without realizing it’s impact? A show just doesn’t make millions of dollars a year if it didn’t deliver.

    • Aanarav
  14. also couldnt disagree more with this article. if the timeslot didnt matter, lenos ratings wouldnt have taken such a huge hit. and another thing to consider is that conan hasnt had the time to establish himself yet for the tonight show

    when he did late night he struggled for the first couple YEARS. so did leno when he took over the tonight show. it took both of them time to establish their shows, and get ahead in the ratings.

    im just going to come out and say it though because this is an important point to make. leno’s 10oclock show is causing allot of the problems. by moving him to ten they didnt give conan the tonight show. they just moved both shows ahead an hour allowing lenos fans to duck out earlier in the night, rather than having them SWITCH to obrien

  15. Time slots still matter in 2010. While 30% of all U.S. households have DVRs, less than 25% of what they watch is time shifted. There are 282 million households watching 120+ hours of broadcast television every month and there are less than half that number watching 2 hours of online content in the same period.

  16. Also disagree. The time slot is a HUGE reason shows succeed or fail. If time slot wasn’t important, then Jay Leno would keep his 10pm and, politely, stfu.

    Leno had stated openly that his spot would be given to Conan. Does anyone remember that? It was agreed for many years that Conan would take the show. Then, Jay moves to 10pm? Then he wants to go back? Why should anyone respect Jay?

    If everyone thinks Jay is funny, then they should watch him at 10pm or DVR his show. Personally, I lost respect for Jay, and plan on following Conan whatever happens. Even if he stays at NBC with those NBC dipshit execs.

    The issue is about integrity. Leno says one thing, then does another.

  17. Of course it matters. As said before, explain why NBC is even in this predicament…The Jay Leno shows failed experiment. Ratings.

    Don’t you realize its more than just a time slot? It’s the Tonight Show tradition. Why should it change because Jay Leno failed, or because of DVR?

  18. I agree with Eric, the time does matter. It’s all about ratings and DVRing something or watching it online isn’t paying the bills. The time is when the show gets watched. If the whole DVR thing really worked, putting a show on Friday night wouldn’t be the death of it. Ugly Betty comes to mind.

  19. Couldn’t disagree with you more. If the 11PM news lead-in doesn’t matter, how do you explain Jay Leno’s dismal drop in ratings when he moved from the cushy spot to 10PM? Even against repeats on other channels, he lost big.