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Conan O’Brien and the Streaming Industry’s Pivot to Late Night Comedy

Conan O'Brien's upcoming HBO Max show marks the latest in a string of comedians who are gearing up to host shows on streaming services.

Conan O'Brien in "Conan in Ghana"

Conan O’Brien in “Conan in Ghana”

TBS

Conan O’Brien’s tenure at TBS might be coming to an end but the comedian, creator, and host of “Conan” is setting his sights on a new television show for the HBO Max streaming service.

It’s unclear what O’Brien’s HBO Max show will be like. WarnerMedia stated last November that the comedian’s “Conan Without Borders” shows, where he travels to other countries (those episodes have taken him to locations such as South Korea, Mexico, and Haiti), would continue alongside his upcoming HBO Max series, which suggests that his new show will be something else entirely.

Regardless, O’Brien is the latest in a recent string of comedians who have or plan on hosting a comedy show on a streaming service, a relatively new phenomenon for the medium. For streaming services there’s never been greater competition for eyeballs (and subscriber dollars) than now, especially when it comes to scripted drama and comedy programming. That said, despite the proliferation of streaming-exclusive shows over the last few years, late night and otherwise topical comedy has been a undermined genre on the industry’s leading streaming services.

Though several streamers (particularly Netflix) have invested in stand-up comedy specials, late night talk shows and variety comedy programs have been surprisingly rare on streamers despite their decades-long success on linear TV. On one hand, this makes sense: Late night shows are driven by their hosts and branding, and simply replicating the success of something such as “The Tonight Show” or “The Daily Show” on a new platform with a new host would be easier said than done.

Meanwhile, late night hosts such as Jimmy Fallon, Steven Colbert, Samantha Bee, and Trevor Noah continue to attract large viewership numbers for their networks, and it’s understandable if executives of companies that have a hand in both linear TV and streaming spaces would be hesitant to fix something that clearly isn’t broken.

Still, there’s a void of late night programming that could be filled on streaming services, and it’s telling that the industry’s newer platforms have led the charge on greenlighting such shows to draw subscribers in. One of the key perks NBCUniversal touted when rolling out its Peacock streamer last year was that subscribers could view the late night shows anchored by Fallon and Seth Meyers several hours ahead of their broadcast date.

Peacock also made headlines last year when NBCUniversal announced that Larry Wilmore and Amber Ruffin, two veterans of the late night talk show scene, would anchor their own shows on Peacock. Peacock, like all other major streamers, does not release viewership data but numbers on Peacock’s “Wilmore” and “The Amber Ruffin Show” YouTube segments indicate that both shows enjoyed a consistent following, albeit much smaller ones than those at more established shows that air on linear TV. The ViacomCBS-owned Paramount+ went in a slightly different direction with “Tooning Out the News,” an animated satire of political news and talk shows that is created and executive produced by Colbert.

Other streaming services have dabbled in similar shows: “I Love You America with Sarah Silverman” ran for 21 episodes before being cancelled by Hulu in 2018, while Netflix attracted one of the biggest names in late night history via “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman.” Letterman’s show is likely streaming’s biggest late night-style show — most of the show’s YouTube segments have generated hundreds of thousands of views, while a clip from its Kim Kardashian episode has nearly hit 2 million views — but only several episodes have been produced each year since it began streaming on Netflix in 2018. Netflix also hosted “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” which ran for six seasons and was cancelled last year.

Though the aforementioned shows have found varying levels of success, the real test for late night television on streamers lies in O’Brien’s HBO Max show, as well as Apple TV+, the latter of which will be host to a current affairs series from former “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. (Though previous reports have stated that Stewart’s show “won’t have a nightly or even weekly cadence,” Stewart’s status as a late night icon is bound to draw in fans of his prior work.) Linear TV might be declining in popularity, but late night television is as beloved as ever. O’Brien and Stewart’s impending shows suggest that streamers are finally beginning to take notice of the genre.

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