Conan O’Brien, George Lopez attracting younger viewers to TBS

Posted April 01, 2011, at 10:56 a.m.

BURBANK, Calif. — The one-two punch of TBS talk shows “Conan” and “Lopez Tonight” have won over in four months a key TV audience: young viewers.

The shows have become the late-night choice for viewers with an average age of 32 — a coveted demographic for most advertisers.

It’s not even a close race with the major network late-night shows. The average age of a Jay Leno or David Letterman viewer is 56. Jimmy Kimmel — the youngest of the five major late-night talk show hosts at 43 — attracts an audience that averages 51 years old.

What’s making the unusual TBS pairing work with young viewers has a lot to do with being on cable, where the hosts have found fewer restrictions on their comedy.

Network talk shows have to contend with corporate executives and work under the tight restrictions of the Federal Communication Commission. Cable programs don’t have those tight rules.

O’Brien and Lopez are taking advantage of the freedom by cranking up the funny material.

“Lopez” executive producer Robert Morton, who spent 14 years in the same position with David Letterman, went to TBS executives as soon as word broke O’Brien was coming to the cable channel.

“I think when the show started, it was approached more as a talk show, and we met with the TBS people and basically said, ‘Hey, look, we want to do comedy,’ especially with Conan coming on, who is so comedically strong,” Morton says. “You know, we have to create a comedy block with this two hours.

“So we pretty much just refocused everything.”

O’Brien was glad to throw off the network constrictions once he moved to cable.

“I came to this show thinking I just want to go for it in every single way creatively, and I don’t want to overthink things. If someone has an idea and it sounds like ‘Gee, I haven’t seen that before,’ we try it,” Conan O’Brien says during an interview on his rather intimate set on the Warner Bros. lot. “What’s nice is we are partnered with people who have encouraged that since day one.

“The people at TBS have made it very clear that we want you to do what you think is funny and what you enjoy doing, and I think that’s led to a feeling here anyway of experimentation in silliness.”

O’Brien seems to have come through the talk show hell that took him from the ecstasy of hosting “The Tonight Show” to the anguish of being forced out when Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. (EDT) series fell apart faster than a paper canoe.

If he’s still nursing wounds, the pain is hidden behind the satisfaction of working for a network that gives him so much creative freedom.

“There’s nothing like leaving, walking away from ‘The Tonight Show,’ to make you really appreciate getting to be on the air and getting to do a show. And so I think some of that spirit is coming through,” O’Brien says. “The dynamic here is very different. The people I’m working for, the feeling here is a very different feeling, and I think that contributes to it a lot, too.”

O’Brien’s show is the laid-back part of this talk tandem. Lopez brings the lunacy.

On his stage — that’s four times larger than O’Brien’s — Lopez treats late-night talk like a rock concert after-party. Guests who show up with no energy get their comical butts kicked.

Lopez, who started his show in November 2009, could have been upset by O’Brien’s arrival. It bumped his show to midnight. But the later slot is a better fit for his party feel, and Lopez thinks the teaming should have some longevity.

The change also allowed him to make his show even edgier — from jokes to guests.

“It’s a nice partnership. We are both guys who haven’t turned 50 yet …,” he says. “They don’t put on air-conditioning this extravagant for a show that’s not going to be around a long time.”

The result is that both talk show hosts are changing late-night. They’ve gone back to using a very simple formula that O’Brien expressed when he left NBC: “This is really not a big deal because all we are here to do is to have fun on television.”

And that fun is attracting viewers — and a lot of young viewers — to late-night.

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