Broadcast Brilliance: Conan O'Brien Moves To TBS

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 Timesnoted, 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 The Tonight 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—is 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.

Daniel Gross is also the author of Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation andPop!: Why Bubbles Are Great For The Economy.