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Cable Show 2012: Conan O'Brien on the New Age of TV: 'Adapt or Die'

5/23/2012 3:50 PM Eastern

Boston -- When Conan O'Brien was forced out of The Tonight Show in 2010, he had to choose not just whether to stay at NBC but decide where he thought the television industry was headed, the talk show host told CNN host Piers Morgan during the general session here Wednesday morning.

"I felt like I was standing with one foot in traditional broadcasting and one foot in this new world that we're all trying to figure out," O'Brien said. "And the divide ran right between me and I had to make a jump one way or the other."

As everyone knows, O'Brien chose to make the jump to cable and TBS, where he hosts his show for a much smaller, if younger and more technically savvy audience, than he did on network TV. O'Brien said he and his team have spent the last year and a half trying to figure out how to navigate that new world of social TV.

"I never pretended to know anything about any of this," he said. "The whole experience I went through with The Tonight Show, we saw this grassroots movement just spring up, which I didn't frankly even know existed. I was forced to embrace this world and figure out how to use it." 

O'Brien's first discovery was one often preached by TV executives -- it's all about content. "People constantly try and overthink the Web and I think funny content is funny content," he said.

While he said the TV broadcast still gets most of his focus, he was surprised at how much focus has to be put into making digital-only content to promote the show in a way that engages the audience.

"What you're doing with social media is constantly trying to figure out ways to create a symbiotic relationship," O'Brien said. "It's not just driving people on social networks to your television show. Yes, you want to do that. But you want to get people in the TV emotionally involved in what you're doing on Twitter and Facebook."

That happened recently when Will Ferrell chose to announce the Anchorman sequel on Conan in a surprise appearance that the show's digital team distributed online via several video clips in advance, which ended up driving viewers to Conan. O'Brien said it underscored how much the business has changed from when he started in 1993 and "the obsession was never give anything away."

"The days of ‘I only want people to experience me at 11 o'clock on TBS,' those days are over," he said. "The audience is too fractured, they're too distracted, and a whole generation is growing up that doesn't watch television that way."

O'Brien praised his experience at TBS and said the biggest difference between working at that network and NBC is how quickly ideas can be pushed through on cable. And he has no regrets about the jump he chose.

"My attitude the last couple of years was adapt or die," he said. "I chose I think this is where it is going. The last year and a half has just been a complete -- for me, anyway -- affirmation that that's the way to go."

September