Could 'Conan' Get Canceled? Ratings Drop 60% Since Premiere

| by Michael Allen

Ratings for the TBS talker ‘Conan’ have tumbled by 60% since its debut last fall. The audience has fallen from about 2.4 million, during the show's first month on the air in 2010, to roughly 958,000 people this past July, according to the Nielsen Co.

In July, ‘Conan’ averaged about 685,000 viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, placing him behind cable competitors such as Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart as well as broadcast rivals Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and Jay Leno. 'Conan' has even fallen behind newer faces such as Chelsea Handler.

Despite ‘Conan’s’ shrinking audience, TBS is banking more money on the comedian, paying for costly programming in an attempt to protect its investment.

To win back viewers, TBS next month will start airing repeats of hit comedy ‘The Big Bang Theory’ as a lead-in to ‘Conan’ two nights a week, at a reported cost of $2 million an episode.

TBS is also developing several new original television shows to compliment ‘Conan,’ including ‘The Wedding Band,’ a show about a group of friends who perform together at weddings.

"We want TBS to be a leading comedy brand," Steve Koonin, president of Time Warner's Turner Entertainment Networks, which includes TBS, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

When Conan O'Brien hosted 'The Tonight Show’ in the last half of 2009 through early 2010, he pulled an average of 2.9 million viewers, about half of whom were between the ages of 18 and 49 years old.

Television executives say that the ratings problem for ‘Conan’ lies in part with his niche appeal. His act relies more on extended sketches that venture into absurd territory rather than punch lines ripped from the news or pure political and cultural satire. His biting, self-deprecating style, which often involves bizarre gestures or movements such as his famous "string dance," tends to resonate more with younger viewers.

When he was at NBC, executives urged him to broaden his act, according to a source. TBS has already committed to a second season of 'Conan,' suggesting the network will stand by him at least through the end of 2012.