Can Conan O’Brien Survive Online?

Conan O’Brien is now free as a bird.

Friday night marked the last episode of the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. As Conan plans his next move, many are calling for him to eschew broadcast media altogether and pack his bags for the digital frontier. Doing so would allow him unprecedented creative control and avoid the timeslot struggles that ended his NBC career.

Paul Carr of TechCrunch counsels against such a move. He argues that “in the media the most important thing someone can have is not money or viewers or readers or listeners… but prestige: that X factor that makes people know you’re a star.”

“Getting prestige isn’t easy – and that’s the point. We live in a world that’s full of people who want our attention and we can’t possibly filter all of them ourselves, so we accept that we need certain media gatekeepers to do the filtering for us. NBC is one of those gatekeepers.”

Carr raises a good point. Personally, I happen to agree with his assessment. Conan would almost certainly lose a lot of his audience by moving his program online. (Although, the recent ComScore debacle suggests that sample based methodologies, like Nielsen ratings, are not so good at counting audiences in the first place.) He would also, as Carr suggests, likely experience a fate similar to that of Howard Stern after his shift to satellite radio and onDemand cable – earning a fortune catering to his diehard fans, but losing a great deal of pop cultural influence. [Full disclosure: HowardTV is one of our favorite clients.]

But David Carr obscures the larger point of the digital shift by drawing the wrong conclusions from the right observations. The point of digital democratization is not that traditional media can’t or doesn’t act as talent gatekeepers — it’s that they are no longer the only gatekeepers in the game. The point isn’t that the internet has fully supplanted TV as the anointer of cultural relevance; it’s that it is quickly joining its ranks.

Carr repeatedly confuses the power of a medium with the strength of its brand. Yes NBC, the New York Times, and record labels have powerful brands that we rely on to help us find quality. But what Carr is really talking about is the power of reputation vs. the power of the medium itself. All these brands have the advantage of being very old, trusted and familiar with a history and a mechanism of finding and producing top talent. We trust them to bring us the good stuff.

But there are much younger, online-only brands that command star-making power as well – Gizmodo, the Huffington Post, Slate, Perez Hilton, Google and more. That the appeal of digital stars doesn’t always transfer into the traditional space doesn’t mean that digital stars are somehow of a “lesser caliber.” Plenty of traditional stars can’t get traction in the digital space – the ability to effectively use one’s medium is an integral part of stardom.

As the barriers to entry in the media game continue to tumble, media brands that succeed will need to leverage top talent that can compete across a level playing field. Consumers may be loyal to having their TV sets gently laugh them to sleep every night at 11:30 – but what happens when that TV set is pulling democratized content vetted by consumers from a digital service like Boxee instead of NBC Universal?