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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.