The comic’s become a cable industry icon since he moved from NBC to TBS, and he assured execs this morning that they have nothing to fear as new technologies and social media change the rules of engagement with TV viewers. “I was forced to embrace this world” after he lost his Tonight Show gig in 2010, he said this morning at The Cable Show. He discovered that unlike the old days, where the goal was simply to drive people to the tube, getting audiences “emotionally involved” has become just as important. For example, O’Brien says it doesn’t hurt ratings to release clips and other information ahead of a broadcast. When Will Ferrell recently appeared on Conan in character as Ron Burgundy to reveal his plan to make a sequel of The Anchorman, “we chipped his appearance out into bite-sized pieces and put it out everywhere.” That resulted in higher ratings for the night. Even people who already know what’s coming “say, ‘You know what, it’s 5 minutes of 11; I’m going to check out Conan‘.” Unlike his days at NBC, where he says there was “a condescending attitude about the Web,” Turner Broadcasting has been “absolutely a dream come true…They’re up for anything we’re up for.” O’Brien contrasted the new approach to TV to the strategies used when Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show. Audiences used to wait for the anniversary special to see famous clips like the one of actor Ed Ames throwing a tomahawk at the outline of a person — which inadvertently landed at the crotch. “Today people would be turning it into ring tones.” And nobody could generate excitement around an act the way Ed Sullivan did in 1964 with The Beatles. These days, “by the time they showed up at Ed Sullivan we’d be sick of them….The very nature of entertainment has changed.” O’Brien didn’t resist the bait from his interviewer, CNN’s Piers Morgan, to take a swipe at Jay Leno. Morgan noted that O’Brien has far more Twitter followers than Leno. “He’s busy,” O’Brien said. “He has the largest private car collection n the world, so he doesn’t have time for social media.” Later he sarcastically referred to Leno as “a wonderful man…a true humanitarian.”

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