When NBC fired Conan O’Brien last year in favor of giving Jay Leno his time slot back, they worked out a deal in which O’Brien was forbidden from appearing on TV and/or disparaging the network that dangled the Tonight Show in front of him and then snatched it back. What we do know is that not long after that deal was made, O’Brien took to Twitter. What we didn’t know until now was that NBC wanted that Twitter account shut down. Because when you’ve already disappointed so many fans in the 18 to 49 demographic, why not go big or go home? Definitely go after a former employee’s Twitter account. Brilliant!
Fortune has a look into the aftermath of the firing and the subsequent rise of Conan O’Brien as a digital hero. Once reluctant to be a part of anything related to social media, O’Brien quickly realized that there was a way to reach his fans — and release some pent-up creative energy/anger — Twitter. In no way was Twitter part of his final severance deal, which legally prohibited him from appearing on television for eight months. Because, much like a parent sending a child to their room — their room filled with video games, a computer, and a TV — NBC didn’t consider new media when they created this deal. Techdirt points out that NBC is notoriously tone-deaf when it comes to new media, citing the time they demanded that the SNL Digital Shorts by the Lonely Island (who may have had their own YouTube channel prior to joining the Saturday Night Live staff/cast, but I could be wrong) be pulled from YouTube, not realizing that there were tons of people on the Interwebs watching NBC content and that, perhaps, they could somehow profit from this. (NBC soon made the Digital Shorts as well as other SNL clips available on both their own site and Hulu.) O’Brien says:
“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.”
NBC has repeatedly proven its ignorance and even blatant intolerance of new media, including last week, when it fired an employee for leaking the harmless but entertaining “What is Internet?” clip from the Today Show.
The initial Team Coco fan movement on Twitter was targeted by NBC when the network thought O’Brien was the one behind it. But at that point (immediately upon the release of O’Brien’s “People of Earth” letter), O’Brien wasn’t even on Twitter. But he soon decided that he was ready — and allowed — to speak for himself:
Around seven o’clock in the morning on Feb. 24, 2010 — a day that lives in social-media history — O’Brien, sitting in his living room with his core team, including his longtime executive producer, Jeff Ross, and his former show blogger, Aaron Bleyaert, opened up a Twitter account, typed fewer than 140 characters, and hit the SEND TWEET button:
Today I interviewed a squirrel in my backyard and then threw to commercial. Somebody help me.
NBC now had its target. O’Brien’s response?
“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.” Today O’Brien laughs at the old-media disconnect of that moment: He is approaching 2.5 million followers.
Yes, NBC. Definitely swat the hive of 2.5 million people who were already angry enough.
Well, we all know this never came to pass. But what’s interesting is that despite O’Brien’s new show on TBS, none of Conan‘s material is owned by TBS. It’s owned by O’Brien’s own production companies — Conaco and Team Coco. And while TBS is a partner in the show, Conan owns it. (The only other late-night host with similar control is David Letterman.)
To fully utilize his content digitally, O’Brien started a second company, Team Coco. There’s no TBS show site. Instead, TBS funds the new company’s first $2 million of expenses and participates in any profits. Team Coco is now a studio of eight Gen X and Gen Y employees, all except Bleyaert hired by new GM–executive producer John Wooden, a self-described “mega-nerd who specializes in producing allegedly entertaining digital media …”
Basically, old media has been almost completely turned on its head. Which makes sense, because despite his reluctance to join it, Conan O’Brien is right at home in new media. And we like it that way.