Conan O’Brien is representative of a generation. Starting out on his 12:30am talk show, Late Night, Conan became the go-to guy for high schoolers and college kids. Conan was young, accessible, and an alternative to the older and stuffier tonight show hosts. As his core viewers who had grown-up with him were entering adulthood, Conan too had graduated by taking over the Tonight Show (replacing Jay Leno). This was a slight mis-step in Conan’s career trajectory. While his viewers remained loyal, he was no longer where the zeitgeist had moved to.

jay-leno-and-conan-obrienThe smart, hip viewers – Conan’s people, they’d already moved on to cable television. A medium which would allow for sharper-edged late night comedy. The Daily Show & The Colbert Report were thriving. In a Final Destination-style turn of events, destiny corrected itself.

And so, within the next 24 hours in the US, Conan is set to return to television. On cable, as the host of ‘Conan’.

When Conan took on The Tonight Show, he modified his act to suit the timeslot. Conan danced around less, he lost the oddball acts like the Masturbating Bear and Pimpbot 3000 (half futuristic robot, half 1970’s street pimp), his monologue got longer, and musical acts booked on the show were a lot more mainstream.

With his shift to cable television, I believe we’ll see yet another evolution for Conan O’Brien. Already we know that he’s bearded up, a sign that he is looking to re-define himself and carve out a new space. On cable television, Conan no longer needs the broad appeal required to make the Tonight Show successful. Instead, cable television almost demands the opposite. On cable, Conan can appeal to the niche and find a very valuable audience there.

With the additional freedom of cable TV, what can we expect from Conan? I have a few theories.

  • A shorter monologue. While the monologue plays a considerable role in maintaining Broadcast TV viewertship, it has never been one of Conans stronger points.
  • More skits.
  • Andy back on the couch. Placing Andy across the stage and away from the couch felt wrong for The Tonight Show. The Conan/Andy on-screen team is pure magic and will likely be capitalised upon.

It will be interesting to see what Conan has learned from the Stewart/Colbert success. Already we’ve seen him learn from their established online presence. The Team Coco website is set to offer a very similar style as The Daily Show/Colbert Report with video taking the focus of the site, offering archive episodes in a very similar fashion to the Comedy Central series.

The mass-audience shift to niche television has been underway for a while now, with audiences increasingly receptive to content that is catered for their tastes. Heck, it was only just last week that The Daily Show out-rated both Letterman and The Tonight Show. This is proof positive that there are audiences begging for high-minded late night comedy. Conan may be just what they needed.

Conan premieres in Australia on Wed 10 November 2010 at 11:3opm weeknights, airing on GEM.