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Conan O’Brien Format Change Under Consideration at TBS

Variety logo Variety 1/5/2017 Daniel Holloway
© Provided by Variety

Turner is eyeing a major change for its resident late-night star.

Speaking with Variety Thursday, Turner Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly confirmed that the company is considering moving O’Brien’s nightly late-night talk show “Conan” to a weekly format.

“Maybe,” Reilly responded when asked about the possible move, which had been reported earlier Thursday. Noting that the network has several projects in the works with O’Brien, Reilly said, “He has a very full plate in things that we’re going to be going the next step on in the next six months, and that led him to ask me, ‘Well, how do we balance this with the talk show?'” Reilly added, “He’s going to have a show on TBS for many years to come. Right now what form that takes in relation to these other endeavors is in flux. Is going to once a week a possibility? It is. That’s going to come from him when he’s ready to get his hands around that.”

Reilly said that no decision has been made about a format change, nor will one likely be made before spring.

Noting that O’Brien’s current contract with Turner runs through 2018, Reilly said, “You can anticipate that we will be going beyond that.” He said that Turner is not in active negotiations with O’Brien, and likely will not begin talks until some time between spring and fall.

News of a possible format change was first reported Thursday by the Wrap.

Turner executives have been encouraged by positive fan response to the comic’s on-location special episodes, which have seen him take the show abroad. O’Brien’s 2013 Cuba special was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Last year, TBS broadcast special episodes from Qatar, South Korea, and Germany.

O’Brien’s contract with Turner was last renewed in 2014 and is set to expire next year. His relationship with the company extends well beyond “Conan.” TBS heads into production next month on a new series, “Clueless Gamer,” based on a recurring segment from “Conan.” O’Brien also executive produces live-action comedy “People of Earth” for the cable channel, as well as a new animated series, “Final Space,” which will go into production later this year.

The potential shift to a once-a-week format reflects the changing realities of the television business. As late-night TV has become more crowded in recent years, programmers have placed a growing emphasis on using comedic talk shows as platforms for creating digital content to be consumed later. Since launching O’Brien’s talk show in 2010, after the comic was bounced from his gig as host of “The Tonight Show” on NBC, “Conan” has drawn ratings far smaller in scale than those of the show’s broadcast competitors. For the week of Dec. 23, the most recent in which TBS aired original episodes of the show, “Conan” drew an average 544,000 total viewers. “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” the most watched show in late night, drew 3.52 million.

But O’Brien’s audience also continues to skew much younger than that of most of his competitors, making it potentially valuable as the channel, which has been in rebuilding mode since Reilly took over it and sister network TNT in 2014, shifts toward a multiplatform mindset.

“Predetermining a [programming] block is kind of an antiquated way of looking at things,” Reilly said when asked if TBS would abandon its late-night comedy block — which briefly also included a second talker, “The Pete Holmes Show,” which O’Brien produced and which aired after “Conan” from 2013 to 2014. “Whether we have a block or not is sort of irrelevant.”

Reilly added, “I ultimately would prefer people to watch our linear service at its scheduled time.” But it’s more important, the executive said, for the company to continue to grow its efforts across various platforms, including digital. “We need to embrace the realities of the day we live in and make [digital] an opportunity, not just an ancillary part of marketing for that linear show.”

TBS has found recent success using a weekly series as a platform for a comedy star whose digital efforts have gained significant traction. It has garnered critical praise and positive buzz for its venture with another late-night veteran, “Daily Show” alum Samantha Bee, whose “Full Frontal” was nominated for an Emmy last year for outstanding writing in a variety series. Although the show airs once a week in the primetime 10 p.m. hour, it is often compared to other weekly late-night style shows such as HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

Representatives for O’Brien and his production company Conaco directed questions Thursday regarding the status of the comic’s late-night show to Turner.

A Turner spokesperson released the following statement Thursday: “Conan remains an invaluable franchise, partner and producer for our TBS brand and we’ll be in business with him for a long time. 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. In addition to Conan’s daily responsibilities to his talk show, we continue to have very ambitious plans that will further broaden and evolve our relationship with Conan.”

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