But it never developed Nielsen ratings to match what O'Brien could access on a broadcast network (The Wrap website reported this week Conan's ratings have declined 29 percent during the current TV season, averaging about 282,000 viewers a night). Instead, the show has leaned into creating online content for fans to consume on YouTube and through his website, mirroring how many viewers now seem to connect with talk show content.
Conan went on hiatus in 2018, coming back months later as a stripped-down half-hour show without a band. Now, O'Brien is leaving TBS altogether, with plans to debut a weekly variety show on corporate sibling HBO Max. He's also got loads of multimedia projects going under his Team Coco banner, including podcasts (Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend, Literally with Rob Lowe), stand-up specials from other comics, merchandising and more.
O'Brien told WHYY's Fresh Air back in 2019 that "what I don't want to do is sleepwalk my way through my career at this stage," hinting at a restless spirit which has powered many of his recent projects.
Still, this transition feels like an odd combination of O'Brien leaving late night TV as the genre leaves him. His smartly silly comedy—disconnected from politics, celebrity worship or anything resembling showbiz cool—is now beloved by a sliver of the TV audience too small to sustain a regular gig, even on standard cable.
Even as new voices like Amber Ruffin, Desus and Mero and Ziwe try to reinvent late night talk for a new generation, O'Brien is headed for the exit, seemingly eager to redefine himself before the industry does it for him.
Carving and sustaining a distinctive voice