Conan plays safe, gives viewers trusted TV routine

Thu Nov 11, 2010 3:22pm EST
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By Mark Egan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It took months of angst for Conan O'Brien to get his own late-night chat show and if TV viewers are now wondering why it looks like all others, it's because that's what Americans like, industry watchers said.

O'Brien's new show "Conan" premiered on Monday on cable channel TBS, marking his return to U.S. television after an acrimonious departure from NBC's "The Tonight Show" in January when he was replaced with that program's former star, comedian Jay Leno.

But the 47-year-old known for his coiffed, red hair and off-beat humor didn't alter the basic chat show format -- he wore a suit and tie, did a monologue before a studio audience, had a house band and musical guest, and sat at a desk talking to actors in a show that featured some light comedy skits.

"In television, things tend to change very, very slowly," said Richard Wald, media and society professor at New York's Columbia University.

"All of the best formulas are there because they have proven to be popular. It's like American beers -- they all tend to taste like Budweiser because it's very popular. In television too, everybody seeks to find the center of taste."

Wald said chat shows are not the only staid form on network TV. The evening news is virtually unchanged in 50 years, early morning shows share similar formats regardless and even entertainment programs, from police procedural programs to sitcoms, have stayed mostly unaltered for decades.

Bill Carter, author of the new book "The War for Late Night" which recounts the battle between Leno and O'Brien, said efforts by others to shake up late night TV failed.

"There is something in the DNA of that format that people accept and they do not want it shaken up," said Carter.   Continued...