Today’s news about the cancellation of Lopez Tonight has logically brought up the question of how Conan O’Brien’s TBS talk show is doing, and perhaps even more importantly, how the folks at TBS think it’s doing. On the latter matter, Vulture can report: They’re happy! Very, very happy, according to Steve Koonin, who runs Turner Entertainment, the parent company of TBS. “I could not be happier with Conan as a show or Conan O’Brien and Team Coco as people and an organization,” Koonin told us by phone just a few minutes ago. “We’ve accomplished in late night in less than a year what others have taken five, six, or seven years to do. And it’s mind-blowing to me that everybody thought he was going to come in and win everything [in the ratings]. What Conan has already won is the absolute [embrace] of young people.”
When Koonin speaks of the young folks, he’s referring to the demographic of viewers 18-34. And by that measure, “Conan is No. 1 or No. 2 consistently,” he says. “The average age of its viewer is 32. Leno’s audience was born when Ike was president; Conan’s was born when Reagan was [in the White House].” In addition, Conan has created what Koonin calls, in true exec-speak, “a three-screen experience”: The show does well in live viewership, DVR ratings, and Internet streaming, he says. “You’ve heard of convergence, but with Conan we actually have it,” Koonin says.
But what about press releases from networks like Comedy Central noting that in June, not only did The Daily Show and The Colbert Report beat Coco, so did Chelsea Handler of E!? “Conan had a soft June because of the NBA playoffs, and among [adults 18-34], I have numbers showing Conan beating Chelsea for the last year,” Koonin counters. “We clearly have something [Comedy Central] cares about, the way they’re going after it. This is a long-term play for us, and we couldn’t be happier.”
As for Lopez, Koonin said his show’s cancellation was simply “a business problem. You had a very big, very expensive show that was hard to sustain at those ratings,” he says. “We had every intention of letting George find his audience. [But] it was on for over 200 episodes.” He also noted that, unlike Conan, Lopez Tonight was not a big driver of digital traffic, something essential to TBS’s business model. “We had lots of discussions with George and his reps, but at the end of the day, we made a decision based on the numbers.” And what about those who suggest Lopez was hurt by the shift to midnight? Koonin notes that Lopez’s ratings at 11 p.m. last year were also soft; what’s more, O’Brien has improved on Lopez’s ratings by more than 40 percent.
While Koonin could not have been more definitive with his declaration of support for O’Brien, the exec did admit that TBS hasn’t been able to give Conan the most compatible and consistent lead-ins. He predicted that will start to change this fall when TBS will begin airing repeats of The Big Bang Theory as Conan’s lead-in on two nights of the week. He also said TBS would be making announcements in coming months about the development of new original programming that might also help boost O’Brien’s ratings. “We’re working to get him consistent lead-ins that are considerably more compatible,” Koonin said.