Conan’s Career Game

Conan’s Career Game

The most talked about career move of the week belongs to late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien. TBS announced that O’Brien would debut his show on its network this fall, after its baseball post-season coverage concludes. Many were surprised by what they view as an odd move– as O’Brien himself noted: “In three months I’ve gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I’m headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly.”

The blogosphere has been filled with commentary. There is some surprise that Fox wasn’t able to close a deal with O’Brien. But due to problems with local affiliates Fox couldn’t guarantee a national audience. The E! on-line blog proclaims that O’Brien has let America down because he has effectively given up competing with “The Tonight Show” show on NBC, and in doing so “has likely doomed his countrymen to who knows how many more years of late-night rule by the unfunny one himself: Jay Leno.” The Boston Herald is among those reporting the move shows the growing power of cable television.

Our take on the news is a bit different from each of the above perspectives because of our interest in understanding how different career moves are instrumental to the way individuals accomplish their career goals. We wonder if O’Brien’s plan might actually be– to use his words– working perfectly. In our book, “Your Career Game,” we discuss how understanding the timing of career moves has a tremendous impact on their effectiveness. For example, we encourage people to think carefully about how early career moves are made. Just as a change of a few degrees in the trajectory of a rocket’s launch has a great impact on its flight, so too does a great early move have impact across a career. We also talk about things that pose risks to career success and suggest that people typically are poor at assessing what truly is a risky move. As a result, they may actually make decisions that put them at greater risk. Pursuing a career that is popular may seem safe– after all, if so many are becoming doctors, lawyers, or investment bankers it must be because of the great opportunity there. In fact, we contend it is riskier to follow the crowd– people who do so are effectively investing only to become a commodity.

Thinking about the timing of the move to cable television with regard to where O’Brien is in his career game makes it clear the move is safe and sound. O’Brien is not early in his career game. He has considerable experience early in his career as a comedy writer (Harvard Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, etc.) to go with the past fifteen or so years on network television. His skill is not a commodity. Even those who don’t like his comedy would admit he is unique– from his pompadour to his wit.

Where someone early in a career game might be properly characterized as “buried” on cable TV, O’Brien will flourish there. TBS provides him access to his established audience– no doubt they will easily find and follow him to cable. TBS itself seems bent on establishing its brand as “quirky” and late night talk show hosts don’t get much quirkier than O’Brien. The programming that precedes his show (comedy re-runs) will likely bring some new viewers on board. These viewers– younger and male– are likely to be converts to O’Brien’s style– and they are viewers sought after by advertisers.

A move to Fox would have been quite different. Of particular importance was the network’s inability to get local affiliates to give up their current, lucrative programming for something they didn’t entirely trust in O’Brien’s show. Late night talk shows with limited distribution generally have not posed any threat to established franchises like “The Tonight Show.”

Some are saying that because of the move to cable O’Brien has a built-in excuse should his show flounder. We don’t think he’ll need it. He knows where he is in his career game, he understands risk, and he has made a smart move.

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