How NBC Wanted Conan O'Brien Dump His Twitter Account

from the you-really-don't-get-it dept

There are times that make you wonder how NBC Universal has survived this long, with its almost preternatural ability to screw up the most basic concepts. This is the company that freaked out about YouTube, even when YouTube specifically helped revive interest in shows like Saturday Night Live after the Lazy Sunday video went viral five years ago. This is the same company that was proud of the fact that they made it hard for people to watch the Olympics online — even though NBC’s own data showed that as more people watched online, it actually drove more people to watch on TV. Of course, this is also the company who has lobbied the government for greater protections, claiming that piracy hurts corn farmers and that more money should be spent stopping piracy than fighting bank robbers. And, most recently, it was the company that fired the guy who uploaded the amusing Today Show clip of Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric discovering the internet.

But, apparently, no single moment seems to cement in people’s minds the cluelessness of NBC more than the firing of Conan O’Brien.

Of course, out of that situation, O’Brien has emerged stronger than ever in many ways and a large part of that has been his somewhat unexpected and (initially) hesitant embrace of social media. Fortune has a wonderful article describing the details of what they call “Conan 2.0,” which is fascinating in many ways — including the many ways in which things are so different than when he was an employee at NBC. But the story that stood out most to me was how, soon after Conan started using Twitter, NBC threatened him and wanted him to shut down the account.

You may recall that as part of his separation package from NBC, Conan had to sign a deal that kept him off network TV for a while and forbade him from disparaging the network. But it said nothing about the internet — in part because the folks at NBC still live in a TV centric world where they didn’t even think about the internet as an issue. So the whole Twitter thing took them by surprise:

“What was interesting about it,” points out O’Brien, “is that all the legal prohibitions were coming from people in the old media. They were saying you can’t do all these things, and pretty quickly we realized, ‘Wait a minute!’ Someone said, ‘Does that include Twitter? No. It doesn’t include Twitter.’ And so I started tweeting.”

[…] Just as quickly, O’Brien’s team began to hear that NBC was far from happy. “The network isn’t crazy about you tweeting. They’re not sure that’s cool,” O’Brien recalls being told. His response was simple: “Tell them I would be thrilled if they shut down my Twitter account. I’d love it if that got out. You think PR’s been bad up till now? Wait till you take away my Twitter account.”

The article then goes on to highlight how much more digitally connected O’Brien and his team have become, even to their own surprise. For example, while they had originally planned an ad budget to advertise O’Brien’s standup tour last year, instead they decided to just mention it on Twitter. They figured if that failed, they could easily go back to traditional advertising. Turns out they didn’t need to. Within hours of the first tweet about the tour, they had sold out two shows at Radio City Music Hall (which holds over 6,000 people). The first day alone they sold 120,000 tickets. The entire tour sold out within a few days — with no money spent on advertising.

The other interesting bit — that also shows a massive difference from NBC — is how his team deals with online clips of his show. Rather than hoarding it, they get stuff online quickly and spread it widely:

Team Coco, not TBS, chooses which clips to use, edits them, and posts them. Preview clips from each night’s taping go up an hour before the show’s East Coast broadcast; within an hour after the show’s West Coast broadcast more than a half-dozen clips from that night’s show are posted on its site and Facebook, and linked to via Twitter; and the full show is viewable online the next day at 11 a.m. Eastern time. Last year at The Tonight Show Bleyaert had tried to get pre-show clips posted, but even that seemingly simple idea was difficult to execute because ran the show’s site, and putting up such clips wasn’t part of its normal workflow process. “After the experience that we had at NBC, we wanted to be in control,” says O’Brien’s agent, Rosen. “We wanted the freedom to exploit our content.”

Part of the reason this works is the structure of the deal with TBS. Basically, TBS is just a distribution partner, rather than the owner of the show. O’Brien’s company owns the show and has full creative control, and can control all of the digital experience. The video player they use is their own — not one from TBS. The whole article is really quite fascinating and worth reading, as it shows how embracing social media and what fans want in a really strong way can pay back amazing dividends.

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Comments on “How NBC Wanted Conan O'Brien Dump His Twitter Account”

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Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: How do they pay lobbyists?

30 Rock’s ongoing take on the Comcast (or “Kabletown”) merger has spawned many fantastic jokes to that effect:

“I’m trying to negotiate a 30-billion dollar deal here. That’s billion with a ‘b’. …wait, is that right? That sounds like way too much.”

“This is the NBC Priority pie chart. The big red part you can see is “The Biggest Loser.” The yellow slice, our number two priority, ‘Make it 1997 again through science or magic,’ and the little green part is everything else.”

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: How do they pay lobbyists?

Me too. Especially mocking a multi-billion dollar merger deal AND congressional proceedings around it while that deal was ongoing

But, like Fox when the Simpsons mocks them, NBC knows it can’t easily boss around of its only successful shows – especially given that Fey is the darling of the comedy world right now, and could find another (probably better) job in a heartbeat if she wasn’t having fun on 30 Rock.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: How do they pay lobbyists?

30 Rock’s commentary on the situation makes me howl (laughing).

An aside: I’ve noticed more mentions of the limitations imposed by IP rights on TV lately…

– an episode of The Office a year or so ago, where the characters were trying to find news of their company’s possible failure somewhere on the internet. They found an article, got through the article introduction then ran into a paywall.

It wasn’t made clear what they did about it, but seems one character went to another site to get the same info for free.

– 30 Rock just a week or so ago, wherein 2 characters decided to argue in musical form by replacing the words to Uptown Girl to avoid a rights violation…or something like that. There have been several tossed off lines about such things in other episodes as well.

– Stephen Colbert recently held a contest for artists to produce a portrait that he would display above his studio ‘manteltop’. One entry portrayed Colbert in Star Warsian Empire uniform, a yellow smiley faced death star in the background, Darth Vader at his shoulder (facepalming, I think). Colbert made a point to rename everything pictured to avoid IP issues (ex. Darth “Vendor”).

– A few weeks ago Conan O’Brien was joking with the audience and spontaneously asked his band to play some song but then stopped them immediately, asking if they had the rights. Even asked the producer, who shook his head. No song for Team Coco or his audience.

These examples are pointing up that IP maximalism is hampering those that hold it in such esteem, creating a chill on their own industry, instilling fear in what should be a fearless exercise: entertaining.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: How do they pay lobbyists?

All they are doing is purposely and intentionally running up against the wall, and then looking for sympathy because they slammed their faces into it.

The Conan thing is truly key here: I think that as he goes along, his audience continues to narrow. He is playing to very young demographic for the most part, and appears to be trying hard to fit in (the pressures of social media). Piracy and rights issues are something that many younger people are passionate about, and perhaps he sees potential audience in playing to this vibe.

Yet he makes his living interviewing people who make their living off of IP, most of whom would be unknown if they were not in movies or not making internationally known music.

Contradiction, we know your name 🙂

Frylock (profile) says:

Re: How do they pay lobbyists?

Maybe the executives at NBC (and their attorneys) aren’t the babbling idiots the article makes them out to be. Maybe after decades in the business they actually learned something about how to run a network. The fact they stay afloat despite rapid technological changes is a testament to their abilities. Or do you think they’re “too big to fail”?

Josef Anvil (profile) says:

It's just too funny

Conan is just one example and Im sure there are many more coming. The funniest bit is that the old media (gatekeeper) types are doing all the work of strangling themselves.

They keep saying that quality content is impossible to create without them. Somehow they continue to ignore the fact that technology has drastically reduced the costs of production, marketing, and distribution, which has had the effect of putting the artist’s in control of their business if they so choose. It also allows for new entrants into a space that has been long dominated by huge corporations, and most likely a few of those new entrants will actually become threats to the old companies.

All of the gatekeepers should, instead of litigating, start taking some notice of the world changing around them and start thinking small and nimble.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: It's just too funny

“All of the gatekeepers should, instead of litigating, start taking some notice of the world changing around them and start thinking small and nimble.”

They are monopolies and have the monopoly mindset and corporate structure that goes with it. They can not change. Which is why, they will not learn from history, and will follow the same failed path the record companies did.

zegota (profile) says:

You missed one of my favorite lines from the story:

“This gives those sites content that they crave and also acts as a promotional tool, but more important, it distributes Conan content as quickly as possible, which is crucial to discouraging piracy. ‘There’s no need for some kid to become a bedroom programmer if the clips are already out there,’ says Wooden. ‘Our job is to give them the tools to share, so they don’t have to rip.'”

Instead of being afraid of piracy and sharing in general, they’re taking ownership of it and embracing it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Conan has done well with the massive head start that NBC gave to him. He started out with millions of views, and has worked his way backwards from that.

The question for Conan will be durability. Will his TBS show continue to be competitive, or will it, over time, fade away?

After all, it has already started to fade, down to about a million viewers from the three million that tuned in when he started. The question will be if he can at least stay at these levels or if he will continue to slide.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

He did come out more focused, but I think many people are discovering is that when you remove the limitation, he in fact tends to go too far. He was much better with a little structure around him to keep him “on the field”. His new show seems to be wandering around the parking lot much of the time, and is quickly becomes less relevant. You don’t seem so many references to “Last night on Conan” in the trade news, which means he isn’t making an impact where it counts.

William D says:

I’m amazing how backwards a lot of these executives in charge of these big companies actually are. They can’t even think of writing the internet into Conan’s contract? Seriously? I mean, small companies are using the internet to reach out to people, spread messages quickly, at such a cheaper rate than these multi-million dollar advertising campaigns. People are even buying Facebook fans at sites like GetMorePopular because it’s become the easiest way to reach out to potential customers ? even easier than Google ads in my opinion because when somebody likes something, their friends also see it.

Scott says:

Universal & online streaming

Amen on the Olympics. It was bad enough during the Bejing games, so this time around in Vancouver I naturally assumed they would streamline things and make a bit easier. Sure enough, they made some changes and actually made it…worse. Much worse. During the previous summer games, you had to to download an obscure Microsoft product (because heaven forbid this work with Mediaplayer or any other pre-existing product that most people would already have – that would make entirely too much sense) and select your cable provider. With a little effort, you could get it to work. This time around, you had to do all of that & provide your cable company…pin number. Not your account number, your pin number. Do you know your pin number? I sure as hell didn’t. I called my cable company to get it, and they would not give it to me over the phone or email it. My only option was to put in a request and wait for it to be MAILED to me. Approximate turnaround time – 2 weeks (and guess how long the Olympics last?). And Universal had the audacity to advertise it as “you’re only one click away from stream the olympics right on your computer!”

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