Conan's move to TBS is brilliant—and not just because he'll make a fortune.

Commentary about business and finance.
April 13 2010 5:44 PM

Congratulations, Conan!

His move to TBS is brilliant—and not just because he'll make a fortune.

Conan O'Brien. Click image to expand.
Conan O'Brien

So Conan O'Brien is taking his show to TBS, joining the programming roster that includes reruns of Saved by the Bell and Sex and the City. The cable channel offered Conan more control and ownership than a network would have. But it also offered him something much more important: a better career narrative. The odyssey of Conan O'Brien (born 1963) from Johnny Carson heir to Jon Stewart wannabe perfectly illustrates the conundrum of the late-boomer media star.

Replacing Jay Leno on The Tonight Show should have been the capstone of a brilliant career and a ticket to a comfortable middle-age for O'Brien. Instead, he fell on his face. As the New York Times noted, O'Brien's show pulled in about 2.8 million viewers per night in the second half of 2009, including 1.5 million in the 18-49 demographic. On both counts, the ratings were substantially worse than the numbers Jay Leno had put up.

Coco wasn't alone in his struggle. In recent years, virtually all the stars in their late 40s and early 50s who ascended to iconic thrones of the old media universe have been abandoned by a fickle and increasingly diffuse audience.

For media professionals—actors, comics, writers, producers, reporters, editors—life is a continuing struggle to trade up. They start at the margins of the business, as stringers and errand runners, and out-hustle their colleagues in the Darwinian race for the big chair on the big set. The ultimate prize is the post with the most eyeballs, the most viewers, the most subscribers, and the largest paychecks. But in the past decade, because of demographic shifts and long-term media trends, these king-of-the-hill jobs have become a sort of career poison.

Take NBC anchorman Brian Williams (born 1959), who took over from Tom Brokaw in 2004, at the age of 45, and Katie Couric  (born 1957), who became anchor at CBS News in September 2006. They had the misfortune to rise through the network news ranks in a period when cable news was on the rise and network television was in a lengthy decline. According to the 2009 State of the Media report, the big three networks' news shows had a combined audience of 22 million in 2009, down from 52 million 30 years ago. The median age of a nightly news viewer in 2009: 62.3. Sure, the audiences that tune into Brian, Katie, and Diane are larger than those watching cable. But the network anchors are like large, aging sturgeon in a pond that's drying up.  The fate of late boomer George Stephanopoulos  (born 1961), who recently took the helm at ABC's Good Morning America, is also likely to be grim. Morning news show audiences are shrinking by the day. As Bill Carter of the New York Times noted, GMA's ratings were "down in the first quarter by about 4 percent in viewers and by a more sizable 12 percent among the news audience that advertisers seek, those 25 to 54 years old." Something similar is happening in print, too. Richard Stengel, named editor of Time in 2006 at the age of 51, took charge of the nation's largest newsmagazine in May 2006—just in time to cut the rate base from 4 million to 3.25 million and preside over a shrinkage of staff. (And, yes, I'm aware the same applies to Newsweek, which has the same parent company as Slate.)

While their predecessors enjoyed long, distinguished, comfortable runs (Brokaw had 22 years at Nightly News), late boomer stars may find their tenures to be Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short. And like Conan, they'll be deemed failures by management for failing to hold back the tides of technology and an aging population. Over the next 10 years, will Katie Couric's audience a) decline steadily, b) stabilize, or c) rise dramatically? Would anyone care to bet on c?

By contrast, going to cable offers late-boomer stars a new start—and a different set of career metrics. Here's a chart showing the differential in prime-time audiences for network and cable television. Get 4 million viewers on cable and you're one of the top 10 shows. On network, you need 13.2 million viewers to be in the top 10, and 4 million will get you canceled. The cop series Southland, which did OK but not great on NBC (more than 9 million viewers), wasn't good enough to stick around. It was picked up by TNT, where its audience of about 2.5 million viewers makes it a potential keeper. Conan getting 2.8 million viewers on NBC was a chump. If he gets 1.8 million viewers on TBS, he'll be a hero.

By leaving network for cable, O'Brien isn't just changing his official residence, he's changing the game. Regardless of how he does on cable, his early-boomer elders on network will continue to struggle. Bill Carter noted this week that Leno, back in his old slot, is getting 18 percent fewer viewers than he was in his prior stint on TheTonight Show, that his rating in the 18-49 demo is off 23 percent, and that the average age of his viewers is 56. Oh, and David Letterman has lost about 6 percent of his audience in the past year too.

Of course, the cable crew shouldn't gloat too much. There are signs that the same factors that sent network television into decline—younger audiences seeking information and entertainment from alternate sources—are beginning to harm the establishment cable networks. CNN's woes are well-known, and I wouldn't be surprised to see cable news ratings charts beginning to resemble network news rating charts. Already, the ratings for MSNBC in midday are below those of well-trafficked Web video sites. And I get more e-mails, phone calls, and shoutouts when I do a TechTicker Web segment on Yahoo! Finance than when I appear on CNBC.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.