The Night Shift: Conan Gives Fans A Mission – And Reminds Us How Late Night Has Become an All-Day Affair

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Something notable is changing about the relationship between late night television programs and the fans who watch them. Once upon a time, the back and forth was based around consistency and  familiarity. People would kick back in the recliner, lay back in bed, and tune in to see their old friend Johnny, Dave and Jay. But today, thanks in large part to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – and, most importantly, embeddable video – the game has become quite different: Late night is no longer about crafting 60 minutes for groggy TV viewers,  but about devising a multimedia campaign that can keep fans glued to your brand all day long. Case in point: The Jimmy Fallon iPhone app, the Craig Ferguson twitter personality or last night’s launch of the Conan O’Brien’s Jersey Shore campaign. Video after the jump. 

It was vintage Conan silliness, pitching to MTV execs – and more importantly his legions of fans – the casting of a slick-haired production assistant who Conan says was born to be on the reality show:

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What’s notable here is not the improvised banter – though I love Conan’s feeble attempt to shoot the camera – or the broader concept, but the urgent call for activism. The Jersey Shore segment may have started on the Conan television show last night, but it will gain traction today online, as loyal members of Team Coco blog about it, e-mail about it, tweet about it, and set out to get Conan’s man on the series. If you visit the Conan website today, you’re led to this blog post, where you’re encouraged via Facebook and Twitter to take action. Each and every one of those clicks marks late night’s newest marketing strategy – providing fans with a mission to fill the day, offering ways to stay engaged with the show even 12 hours before it goes to air.

The Jersey Shore campaign comes one day after Conan’s announcement of a daily car giveaway – a campaign that yes, requires online participation – and only a couple of days after the uploading of the Conan theme song, which can be easily downloaded and shared with friends. Beyond downloading, the site encourages you to create – and more importantly share – your own remix (“I wonder when the first remixes will start showing up…(Wink wink),” the site says).

Increasingly, the new routine for a late night fan has nothing to do with late night whatsoever. People wake up, go into work, and as they sip their coffee they scan their favorite blogs, on the lookout for the best video clips from last night’s late night. And here’s the real irony of today’s marketplace: As those fans e-mail around links to their favorite segments, or talk about that hilarious Russell Brand interview with co-workers, it might not be the best late night material that wins the day, but rather the late night shows that have made it easiest for fans to access and post video. Take a tour through Conan’s website, and it might as well be a web series; the quantity and quality of user-friendly, embeddable and sharable video clips is staggering. You don’t have to dig or bootleg; just click.

As far as I’m concerned, it was Stephen Colbert who took this notion of interactivity to a whole new level. With his green screen challenges, his viral campaigns to get a NASA project named after him, he gave Colbert Nation a clearly-defined mission. And that back and forth, that rallying cry, probably helped build viewer loyalty. It wasn’t a show, fans realized, but a community. As for Conan, he now knows this better than anyone; between The Tonight Show and Conan, he remained relevant thanks to his twitter followers, his recurring web videos and his Facebook feeds. Now when he comes out every night and hugs his audience, I don’t think it’s for easy laughs; it’s a bear hug of gratitude, for all those fans out there who have made Conan not just something to watch at the end of the evening but a comedy brand that pulses throughout the day.

So will Conan’s staffer get on Jersey Shore? Who knows. But here’s betting that a whole lot of people will be fighting on his behalf, talking about it with their friends, urging their classmates to send a tweet to MTV and then tuning in every night (or morning) to see how the great Jersey Shore battle is going.

And that camaraderie is precisely the point.