TV | Inside TV

TBS: We'll air 'Conan' forever at these ratings (but O'Brien says he has other plans)

(Photo credit: Meghan Sinclair)

Ratings for Conan O’Brien’s TBS talk show may have dropped notably since his mega-hyped fall debut, but that doesn’t faze his network’s programming chief.

Michael Wright, head of programming at TBS, says that O’Brien’s current nightly average (around 1 million adults 18-49), and his relatively youthful median audience age (33), is good enough to keep renewing the show.

“I discount the first week’s ratings, as anybody should for a talk show or even a scripted program,” said Wright after entertaining TV critics visiting the Conan set. “It’s landing right about where we expected it to. At this number, Conan will run as long as he wants it to.”

Which sounds great for Coco fans, but also prompts a follow-up: How long does O’Brien want to continue as a talk show host?

Luckily, O’Brien was standing ten feet away, and had something to say on the subject – and a few words David Letterman, Jay Leno, NBC and whether he’s a sex symbol too.

“My goal is not to do this forever,” O’Brien said. “I just want to do this really well for a period of time until I have nothing left to say and then go away.”

O’Brien also candidly weighed in on several topics, including…

Post-NBC claims that he’s now a sex symbol (the beard helps): “No. Horrifying. I’m the worst person to comment on this. I grew a beard because I hate shaving. It’s a feeling of liberation, and everybody who loses a job does it, or something. Next thing you know we’re taking publicity photos with the beard. It could go tomorrow. I completely reject the notion I’m in any way a sex symbol and I think my fans do as well.”

Getting a holiday phone call from David Letterman: “It was just a quick call. We hadn’t spoken in a long time. He said, ‘I haven’t checked in on you and want to make sure we’re good.’ I said, ‘We’ve always been good.’ I said he didn’t owe me a call, but I appreciate it.”

On whether he’ll ever talk to Jay Leno again: “I – no – I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s – there’s nothing to be figured out. We all know the story. Life is short. I have kids and family and life to live. I don’t think about it too much. And I’m sure he’s busy.”

On what he misses most about NBC: “I was with that company for a long time and had a lot of amazing experience with them and felt like I was part of that family. It meant a lot to me and there are times when I still feel that loss. There’s a whole body of work I’m now detached from and I know I will not go into that world again.”

On whether his audience chanting “Conan! Conan” is getting old: “We can’t seem to stop it. It will play itself over time. It’s been a crazy journey of discovery – this show could become a game show in a year. [The chanting] has a Stalin-esque feel about it. It’s fun to be Mussolini for five minutes. We certainly don’t take it seriously or encourage it.”

On the best thing about his show today: “There’s nothing like walking away from The Tonight Show to really appreciate being on TV. The feeling here is a very different feeling. There’s like a pirate ship feeling to this show. That’s the biggest comment I get, anywhere I go: ‘You look like you’re having a blast.’”

Originally posted January 12 2011 — 2:23 PM EST

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