First, the good news for Conan O’Brien fans: The host’s late-night TBS talk show is unlikely to break format in 2017.
“Conan” executive producer Jeff Ross told us Thursday that discussions haven’t even started yet on a new contract or extension for O’Brien, whose deal with Turner doesn’t expire for two more years. Those talks will likely take place at some point this year – and when they do, every option is on the table.
Ross said he and O’Brien started brainstorming their long-term plans as the show’s travel episodes began eating up more of their time. (“Conan Without Borders: Berlin,” the most recent primetime special, aired last month.)
“The truth is, Conan and I went to [TNT/TBS president] Kevin Reilly, and Conan said, ‘I want to do this a little longer, but I like doing this other stuff, and there’s not enough time to do it all, with the travel.’ We had the conversation, asking how do you do more of this stuff and still do a four-day a week show.”
Among the ideas they kicked around: Doing a half-hour show, reducing to two days a week, or weekly. Another idea: Making the show collapsible, so that “Conan” can air in different patterns throughout the year.
Ross credited Reilly will “getting what we do for a living, as opposed to other executives we’ve dealt with in the past.” (Reilly and O’Brien have something in common: They were both unceremoniously squeezed out of NBC.)
“He’s very supportive of what we want to do and figuring it out,” Ross said. “That’s where the conversation was at. We’ve had numerous conversations about it internally. We want to build our digital business more. So literally it didn’t go any further than that, let’s figure it out down the road. That was it. No deal, no negotiating, not a discussion about extending, there was nothing.”
Indeed, Reilly took the unusual step of issuing a statement on Thursday confirming that there were no immediate plans to switch up anything. “Conan remains an invaluable franchise, partner and producer for our TBS brand and we’ll be in business with him for a long time,” Reilly said in a statement. “As the media landscape continues to evolve, Conan will continue to lead the evolution of what a talk show will be in the digital age. At this time, we have no plans to change the format or frequency of his popular TBS show.”
The scramble to respond came after The Wrap reported that Turner chief John Martin had confirmed to one of its reporters in Las Vegas at CES that O’Brien was moving to a weekly format. O’Brien, Ross and TBS execs were caught off-guard; it’s clear now that the news was premature, although the idea that a format change could eventually take place isn’t.
“It certainly won’t happen in 2017, whatever change may or may not happen,” Ross said. “As far as when the talks heat up, who knows… We’re busy and have a lot of stuff going on. It takes time and energy, figuring out how to keep things going while growing all these things at the same time.”
Indeed, beyond “Conan,” O’Brien’s production company, Conaco, is also behind TBS’ new sitcom “People of Earth,” as well as the animated comedy “Final Space” and a show based on his talk show segment “Clueless Gamer.”
Late night shows are consumed differently in 2017 – mostly not in late night, and mostly in clips, rather than full episodes. A rethink of how these shows are produced and distributed isn’t as radical as it might have sounded ten years ago.
“The way people watch these shows, you certainly don’t need a one size fits all model… Even though we’ve taken a few more weeks off to do [the trip specials], it’s really hard to do, [and also] do the show 4 days a week,” Ross said. “We will continue doing it, but it’s hard. We like doing all this different stuff, how do we do more of it? That’s how the talks began.”
Ross quickly dismissed the notion that what happened to O’Brien at NBC might be happening again. This time, O’Brien and Ross are leading the conversation about how to change up the show – and asking the question of how to do things differently.
“Everyone who comes on to do one of these shows, including us, says they’re going to come on and do it differently,” he said. “And nobody does. Everybody ends up doing the same time, killing time talking to guests. The reason is, you can only produce so much comedy on a daily basis. We’re already in the volume business. We’ve talked about this for 24 years, how the format is what it is and everyone falls back into it… We’re trying to go down this road and figure it out.”