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Conan O'Brien returns to late-night television on Monday night, after spending months promoting his new show online, hanging out on Twitter, and performing live — as he did in Universal City, California in April.
Monday night at 11 p.m., the closely watched story of Conan O'Brien will go in a new direction. As Elizabeth Blair reports on Morning Edition, O'Brien's exile from NBC kicked him from the heavily marketed world of television into the more directly marketed worlds of Twitter and going on tour.
Speaking at Google in May, O'Brien compared his contractual obligation to stay away from television after he left NBC to being "a prisoner in a 14th century cell writing little things on a piece of paper and throwing them out the window." Only the piece of paper was Twitter, where he now has more than 1.8 million followers. (Sunday night, he tweeted, "Just tried on my suit for tomorrow’s premiere. I have twelve hours to lose 35 pounds.")
O'Brien has learned a lot about marketing from his forced sabbatical from TV — he told the same Google audience that the ability to sell out his live "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television" tour on Twitter without using conventional marketing has led a lot of people to rethinking marketing strategies that have been standard for a long time.
O'Brien will take over the slot where George Lopez has been, and Lopez will slide to midnight. TBS, of course, is hoping the combination brings the network a new young audience to build on the one Lopez already has.
And O'Brien has continued to use unconventional strategies to market his new show even before it airs, including Coco-Cam, the live webcam trained on the offices where the staff put on a series of ridiculous stunts for 24 hours. Online, he also offered a miniaturized version of his show called "Show Zero," where he used a miniaturized band (just a piccolo), a one-joke monologue, and a single celebrity guest (Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory) who sat down, was introduced, and left immediately.
There are occasional reminders that one human year can feel like about seven Hollywood years, and the swerving of O'Brien's fortunes is a pretty good one. A year ago, he was hosting The Tonight Show, Jay Leno had recently started his 10 p.m. experiment in prime time, and if you said you were on "Team Coco," people might have assumed you worked for some sort of international fashion magnate. Within that year, O'Brien has been portrayed as a misfit for the 11:30 slot, a sore loser, a master of social media, a flop, and a phoenix. He's been practically in hiding in some moments and rather overexposed in others.
As of Monday night at 11 p.m. Eastern, he goes back on television, with the opportunity to succeed or fail on the strength of whatever happens on screen.