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 NBC.com 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.