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Image: Conan O'Brien
Art Streiber  /  TBS
updated 11/8/2010 2:16:04 PM ET 2010-11-08T19:16:04

Last week, when Conan O’Brien made a surprise, pre-launch appearance on “Lopez Tonight,” George Lopez greeted him saying, "Welcome to basic cable."

It was a warm welcome — something Jay Leno and NBC failed to give O’Brien when they forced him out of the “Tonight Show” chair just seven months in.

But as O’Brien makes his historic late-night leap — or fall — from broadcast to cable (with a lower budget to match) one person who might not be so welcoming is Jon Stewart.

Why? Because the “Daily Show” now faces something it didn’t have before: competition.

“‘Conan’ absolutely presents a threat for Stewart,” Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, told TheWrap. “Until now, ‘The Daily Show’ has had to compete with local news and syndicated sitcoms.”

More from TheWrap: Even on Cable, Conan's Worth Just as Much as Jay or Dave

Many are anxious to see if O’Brien — with his Coco-faithful — can build a general audience to rival Leno’s return to “Tonight,” which would be a poetic footnote to one of the most mismanaged, poorly handled public decisions in television history.

Monday’s premiere “is sure to raise memories of the whole ugly scene,” Time’s James Poniewozik wrote recently. “[NBC’s plan was] it would pay Conan off, Jay would go back to the 'Tonight' show, and whatever PR fallout there was, at least Jay would do better than Conan.” Yet, seven months into Leno’s reinstallation on “Tonight,” his ratings among 18-49-year-olds have slipped below what Conan’s were — and he doesn’t have his own poor lead-in to blame.

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But the real challenge is for O’Brien to unseat Stewart, who rode the wave of publicity ahead of his “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” to a ratings milestone.

In October, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" averaged more 18-49 viewers than both Dave Letterman’s “Late Show” and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” the first time any talk show has beaten the current kings of late night in the demographic most coveted by advertisers since at least 2000.

According to Nielsen, “The Daily Show" averaged 1.3 million viewers in the 18-49 demo in October, with 1.2 million each for Leno and Letterman. (Worth noting, too, that Letterman eclipsed Leno for the first time since Jay came back on the air, winning the battle for in total viewers, 3.8 million to 3.6 million, per Nielsen. Also worth noting: ABC’s “Nightline” has beaten them both in total viewers four weeks in a row.)

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The median age of the Letterman viewer is 56, Leno, 55, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The Daily Show,” meanwhile, attracts more adults 18-34 than any other late night talk show on the air, and has attracted more men in that age range since 2005.

When you drill down to the 18-24 age group, Stewart has pulled in more young adults than anyone in late night since 2007, and more men since 2004.

Thus, the stage is set for O’Brien vs. Stewart at 11. Call it the “early late shift.”

That Conan and Jon will joust over a younger audience makes sense from a cultural standpoint. Both O’Brien and Stewart (with his faux foil Stephen Colbert) have more of an online following than the rest their late-night rivals, save maybe for Jimmy Fallon.

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TBS said last week that full episodes of “Conan,” like “The Daily Show,” “Colbert Report” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” will be available online the day after each show airs.

And then there’s Twitter. Conan leaned on his so-called Team Coco online — and vice versa — from the moment NBC pulled the plug on his show. His Twitter followers — now 1.8 million strong — seemed to grow faster and thicker than his “f--- you, Jay” beard. (“Today I interviewed a squirrel in my backyard and then threw to commercial,” O’Brien wrote in his first Twitter post in February. “Somebody help me.”)

He parlayed the following into a sold-out comedy-and-variety-show tour that was as much for his personal recovery from the NBC debacle as it was to keep a future late night audience galvanized.

"We're in competition with everybody," Jeffrey Ross, executive producer of "Conan," told the L.A. Times recently. "The gap's narrowing. Cable is not Siberia anymore. The Comedy Central guys have proven that."

Stewart, of course, proved he could galvanize a fanbase, too, rallying 200,000-plus fear-fighting troops in an event designed not only to restore sanity, but also to put his basic cable brand in the spotlight of a national stage.

“The timing of the rally, not just on the eve of the midterms but a week before he faces his stiffest competition, was very savvy on Comedy Central’s part,” Adgate said.

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Then again, competition from “Conan” might, in the end, help Comedy Central, and its ad sales team.

TBS is charging a reported $30,000 to $40,000 for each 30-second commercial — similar to ad time costs for Jay Leno and David Letterman. Stewart charges a fraction of that — roughly $6,000 for a 30-second spot.

“The whole concept of paying differently always eluded me,” Gavin Polone, O’Brien’s manager, said of the disparity between broadcast and cable ad rates. “Why is a 27-year-old male with $70,000 income more valuable if he’s watching Conan on NBC than if he’s watching Conan on TBS?”

If “Conan’s” entry into the late night landscape is a success, it could “level the playing field” for what basic cable shows are able to charge, Adgate said.

And if he does, Stewart might be forced to shriek with excitement, too.

Copyright 2012 by TheWrap.com

Explainer: The top 10 ‘Conan’ teasers

  • TeamCoco.com

    Former “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien returns to television Nov. 8 in his new TBS talk show “Conan.” Of course, anyone with access to basic cable or the Internet likely knows all about that.

    For the last three months, “Conan”-related television ads and online teasers have been hard to avoid. Not that would-be viewers would want to avoid them. Fans of the late-night funnyman have had a unique opportunity to enjoy O’Brien’s signature style in the rapid-fire series of video shorts before his official relaunch.

    Before the last-minute ad efforts come to an end, take a look at the best “Conan” promos released so far.

  • Talkin’ ‘bout the desk wash

    O’Brien got in touch with his inner beefcake and gave the traditional T-shirt-soaking car wash a twist in “Conan Washes His Desk.”

    The somewhat absurd, somewhat hilarious and yes, genuinely sexy clip teased fans with what they have to look forward to when the host returns to late-night television — sponge-chewing, bubble-blowing and shirt-tugging set to the tune of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Or you know, just more of his sly send ups.

  • Private dancer

    The first entry from the “Missing You” series of promos to make the list is “The Stripper.” Like the others from this collection of fan fables, it’s set to a single refrain from John Waite’s '80s hit.

    “The Stripper” tells the tale of a sad and weary fan wiling away his Coco-free time by watching a pole dancer do her thing in an empty club. Of course, the fact that the man happened to be an O’Brien fan became evident only after he whispered a special request in the stripper’s ear. Her knowing smile followed by a perfect performance of the redhead’s now-famous string dance filled in the details.

  • Big-budget blockbuster

    Guess what happens in “Conan O’Brien Drives an Explosives-Packed Car of a Cliff”? Chances are you’re not wrong.

    In an effort to deliver “top notch entertainment,” a leather jacket-clad O’Brien pledged to drive a 1969 Dodge Dart off a 900-foot-high precipice. To up the action ante, he added a trunk full of C4, an interior stuffed with fireworks and a whole lot of popcorn to the mix. Of course, in reality, there was no daredevil act, but the bad CGI, good humor-filled fantasy is even better than it sounds.

  • Rubber Ducky, you're the one

    “Bathtub” is another offering from the equal parts stalker-creepy, funny-cheesy “Missing You” set.

    In this tub-time offering, a middle-aged man enjoys a weepy soak while staring longingly in the face of his favorite rubber ducky. The O’Brien-loving twist being that rather than the face of a duck, the tiny toy sports the red-bearded mug of TBS’ newest star.

  • That's gotta sting

    Ever hoped for a guided tour of each and every injury to mark O’Brien’s 6-foot-4 frame? If so, the “Grievous Bodily Wounds” edition of “Conan Takes Your Questions” is for you.

    This fan-query promo leads to a scar-for-scar rundown. There’s the little-too-low appendectomy mark, the seriously painful-looking tuna-can cut and the less said about the broken nose bit the better. Ick, but oddly interesting.

  • Cocomotion

    “Conan’s Got Dance Moves!” has a simple premise, and it’s right there in the title.

    As anyone who’s ever watched one of his monologues knows, O’Brien can dance — or at the very least, he can do one heck of a mockery of moves. From a go-go swing to an abbreviated string dance, the song-free routine highlights the host’s willingness to “look like an ass” for a laugh.

  • Wilson O'Brien

    The last example from the “Missing You” series (the last to make the list — there are actually six more bizarre gags out there) is “The Island.”

    A Chuck Nolan-like castaway, with some amazingly white Chiclets, fought off the banality of island life and kept the crazies at bay with his very own seaside entertainment center. His remote control was a conch shell and his tricked out TV flotsam, but more important, thanks to one well-decorated volleyball, the set was always tuned to “Conan.”

  • Talking heads

    In “Live Coco Cam News Coverage,” O’Brien took advantage of media interest in his promo-packed hiatus. After announcing there would be a limited-time-only live webcam in the stairwell of the new “Conan” headquarters, Team Coco created a montage of all the talking-head coverage.

    There’s nothing like watching various local news gangs tackle the blow-by-blow action of on-camera characters such as the Dancing Taco and Aerobics Bears.

  • Nom nom nom

    This time a fan question led to a “Cooking With Conan”-style promo called “Conan’s Ultimate Sandwich Recipe,” wherein everyone’s favorite host-in-exile created his own gag-inducing hoagie.

    While fans of extra mayo, extra salsa, extra gravy and chicken nuggets won’t be disappointed with the creation, all others should follow the always appropriate viral video advice: Don’t try this at home.

  • Look! Up in the sky!

    Representing the entire 10-episode run of blimp-related promos is “Conan’s Unhappy With His New Blimp.”

    Much like the other offerings in the airborne set, this one featured O’Brien cracking wise and generally annoying his blimp pilot. Where this one differs is in said pilot’s well-finessed “your mom” joke response.

    Ree Hines gives honorable mentions to “Bus Stop,”“Bedroom” and “Conan Helps With Astronomy Homework.” Follow @ReeHines on Twitter and share your favorite Coco promos.

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