In this week’s print issue of TIME, my column looks at Conan O’Brien‘s re-emergence on 60 Minutes (and on tour) and how his move to cable is another test of what it means to be a “star” in the age of niche media. Leaving aside the money (which thanks to a production deal, could earn O’Brien more on cable than on a big network) is it more influential these days to be like Jay Leno, reaching a middle-of-the-road audience of sleepy late-night viewers, or Jon Stewart, reaching an audience that’s smaller but more devotedly invested? Who’s more influential, Brian Williams or Glenn Beck? Is it about the size of your audience or their devotion? Is cultural power today with the mainstream or with the niche?
A note: this week, the Washington Post Company announced that it is putting Newsweek up for sale. Newsweek itself raises the question of whether mainstream, generalist outlets matter anymore in the niche era. And plenty has been written about how TIME, as a newsmagazine, is affected by the same issues.
So, yes, I am aware of the irony in my writing about this topic. Trust me, I’m aware of it!