The escalating O'Brien/Leno feud illustrates the growing disconnect between a generation of Hulu-streaming, time-shifting viewers, and the networks and advertisers desperate to reach them.
By Ryan Danks
Published January 15, 2010
I'm sure most readers know about the current late night feud going on between Jay Leno/NBC and Conan O'Brien. (For those that don't, there's a brief synopsis of events up to this point at the end of the article.)
I'm a big Conan fan; I love his irreverent, self-deprecating style of humour, and I think that given a real chance he would have thrived on the Tonight Show.
Leno on the other hand, I find bland, boring and generally unfunny. Now you probably don't care what TV shows I watch (as is your right) but advertisers sure do.
I'm part of the 18-34 age bracket which advertisers covet most of all, its also the age bracket which is most socially entwined with the Internet and the one spearheading the massive surge of web based support for Conan. Facebook pages like I'm With CoCo (160,000+ members) and Team Conan (110,000+ members) are only a couple of examples of the overwhelming support Conan has online.
In contrast, the largest Team Leno group I could find has less than 1000 members. (All member counts are accurate as of Jan. 15/10)
This got me wondering: if Conan has such a large, dedicated fan base, primarily made up of the exact group advertisers target, why were his ratings so disappointing to NBC? And why would NBC keep Leno, who is apparently so unpopular with that same group?
Conan's low ratings in older age groups can most likely be explained by Jay Leno's 10pm show retaining viewers that would have ordinarily kept watching the Tonight Show, but what about the younger age groups?
This National Post article blames the viewing habits of "Generation Facebook".
Those behind the groundswell of online support for O'Brien may in fact love the new Tonight Show, but then they may love watching it on Hulu or YouTube the next morning. Ironically, it may be his fans' viewing habits that lead to his eventual demise.
Mark Medley's partially correct. I very rarely stayed up to watch Conan at 11:30pm but I religiously DVRed it each night to watch it (commercial free) the next day.
Particularly funny clips on Hulu or YouTube get passed from friend to friend and become conversation points around the 21st Century water cooler. This type of viewing poses a huge challenge for advertisers and content producers. For the first time in the history of television, the viewers have more control over what and how they watch than the broadcaster does.
Also quoted in the article is Jimmy Fallon:
Time doesn't really matter to me. We're in a different age. Time is like ... I don't even know what time Jersey Shore is on. It doesn't matter - I'll see it.
I'm sure when a show airs doesn't matter to Jimmy Fallon, it doesn't to me, or anyone else who is used to watching TV on their terms. The problem is that it does matter to advertisers and broadcasters.
The traditional measures of viewership don't work in this new commercial skipping, time-shifted world and without those measures, advertisers don't know who's seeing their ads and broadcasters don't know what to charge for the ads.
This uncertainty is what led to The Jay Leno Show looking like it airs on public access, and the slew of "reality" programs - shows that can be produced so cheaply that they make money regardless of ratings.
Declining ratings aren't the fault of "Generation Facebook", but rather the fault of advertisers and broadcasters not keeping pace with technology and clinging to antiquated and generally obsolete methods to track viewers.
New metrics need to be created to more accurately gauge both the breadth of viewership (number of viewers), and the depth of viewership (how passionate individual fans are), because this problem will only get worse with each new generation.
The technology to measure this already (sort of) exists in the form of "On Demand" programming and streaming TV sites like Hulu, but these statistics are usually disregarded by broadcasters (though with ComCast buying NBC, tracking On Demand requests for ratings purposes might become more common).
These technologies easily give a count of the number of times a certain episode has been watched, and coupled with demographic data mined from the required registration forms, give more accurate and timely viewer-ship information than the Nielson's ever did.
Eventually, (perhaps in The Year 3000) I believe viewers will subscribe to specific shows rather than channels, allowing networks to make their money by selling fewer (non-skippable) ads but ones that are highly targeted to the specific group of subscribers, thus creating a more effective advertisement.
Then the networks could track the success of their shows based solely on the people who are actually watching rather than the current estimations of the Neilson system. A show's rating would no longer be skewed by "estimations" or by the performance of adjacent programming but would entire based on its own quality.
But for now, I'm with CoCo and where ever he ends up I'll keep watching him on my terms whether the advertisers count me or not.
In 2004 Jay Leno negotiates a new contract with NBC. Not wanting to lose either Conan or Jay to another network, NBC offers Jay his own hour long show at 10pm and Conan will take over the Tonight Show starting in 2009.
Conan and his entire operation move from New York to Los Angles and his first Tonight Show airs on June 1, 2009. The first "Jay Leno Show" airs on September 14.
Jay's ratings at 10pm were lacklustre at best, proving to be a terrible lead-in for both the 11pm local news and Conan's Tonight Show.
After only seven months, NBC bows to the pressure from its affiliate stations and announces that it will cancel the Jay Leno Show, give Jay a new show at 11:35pm and shift the Tonight Show and the rest of the late night lineup back 30 minutes.
Jay agrees to the deal but Conan releases a heart-felt open letter in which he refuses to go along with the plan.
As of the time of writing (Jan. 15/10) there isn't any hard information about the negotiations between the three parties but the rumour mill seems to agree that Jay will get the Tonight Show back and Conan will leave NBC.(hopefully for his own show on another network sooner rather than later).