In Leno vs. O’Brien, Fans Show Allegiance Online

Brian Stelter|The New York Times

Irritated by the proposed shakeup to NBC’s late-night schedule, Mike Mitchell, an artist in Los Angeles, sketched a heroic image of Conan O’Brien on Monday night, shaded the hair orange, and, recalling one of that talk show host’s nicknames, added the words “I’m with CoCo.”

NBC, Mr. Mitchell said, had “backed Conan and his entire staff into a corner” with its plan to put “The Jay Leno Show” back at 11:35 p.m., elbowing “The Tonight Show” with Mr. O’Brien to a time slot after just midnight. The illustration is now a viral sensation online, inspiring dozens of pro-Conan protest groups on Facebook; several of Mr. O’Brien’s employees have made the image their Facebook profile photo.

The NBC imbroglio is forcing viewers and celebrities to take sides, and the Internet seems to be siding with Mr. O’Brien, the spurned employee who spoke out publicly against his employer this week.


Tens of thousands of people have taken to blogs and Twitter feeds — a wired army — to vent outrage about Mr. O’Brien’s proposed move to 12:05 a.m. They may not have watched his “Tonight Show” regularly — or at all — but boy, are they angry now.

Support for Mr. O’Brien grew even more widespread after he said in a statement on Tuesday that he would not follow “The Tonight Show” to that time slot, setting the stage for an exit from NBC. The drama has gripped Hollywood and gained extensive news media attention, leaving a further stain on NBC’s reputation, according to companies that track consumer opinions on the Internet.

At the same time, it may be burnishing Mr. O’Brien’s reputation. “Conan is officially accumulating capital for his next debut in late night,” Aaron Barnhart, the television critic for The Kansas City Star, said in a interview on Wednesday.

Fox executives have made it clear that Mr. O’Brien would be a compatible fit for its network, although Mr. O’Brien said on Tuesday that he had “no idea what happens next.” Late Wednesday it appeared likely that Mr. O’Brien would exit NBC after firming up financial negotiations, although NBC declined to comment.

The Web, with its status updates and blogs for every conceivable topic, encourages affiliation and loosely organized protests, even when the protesters have little reason to expect that they will change an outcome. “The Internet has a way of making people a little more brave, and a bit more outspoken,” said Mr. Mitchell, who encouraged fans to republish his “CoCo” image.

Sure enough, when the plans for time-slot shifts for Mr. Leno and Mr. O’Brien were first reported last Thursday, people started placing themselves on “Team Conan.” On Twitter “Team Jay” showed only a handful of mentions. “It’s overwhelmingly Conan” on Twitter, by a more than 50-to-1 ratio, said Brian Roy, president of justSignal, a company that monitors social media mentions.

The online reactions highlighted the demographic gap between Mr. Leno’s fans and the young tech-savvy fans of Mr. O’Brien. The plugged-in fans are not necessarily regular viewers; in fact, Mr. O’Brien fell short in NBC’s attempt to gain younger viewers at 11:35 p.m. Depending on who is doing the spinning, the drop-off is a byproduct of NBC’s shallow ratings earlier in the evening or the fault of Mr. O’Brien and his niche humor.

After Mr. O’Brien’s open letter to the “people of earth” about his "very public predicament" was published via the PRNewswire on Tuesday afternoon, thousands of comments swamped entertainment and media Web sites. The most-recommended comment about NBC on read, “I haven’t been a fan of Conan’s show but this letter is complete class.” Johnny Carson, a former long-running “Tonight” host, “would be very proud,” the commenter added. “I’m a fan now.”

Later that day the tone of the comments on Twitter and other Web sites “shifted from pro-Conan to decidedly anti-NBC,” Mr. Roy said.

Another analytics company, Trendrr, said it had found that the Twitter sentiment for NBC had been “overwhelmingly negative” during the past week.

Mr. Barnhart, the critic, said “there’s a sense that anybody who is injured by NBC’s incompetence deserves sympathy.”

Support for Mr. Leno was evident online, as well, but in much smaller portions. Simon Dumenco, the media columnist for Advertising Age, suggested in a column on Wednesday that people have rallied around Mr. O’Brien not because they adore his “Tonight Show” but “because he’s suddenly become an unlikely (Harvard-educated, multimillionaire) Everyman: the freckled face of American job insecurity, a well-meaning hard worker who spent years paying his dues but has now been declared redundant by the halfwit overlords driving his company into the ground.”

The Consumerist blog, produced in partnership with Consumer Reports magazine, published e-mail addresses for NBC executives and proposed an “executive e-mail carpet bomb.” “Get them to pull the dagger out of Conan’s back before it’s too late, for all of us,” the blog wrote. It later listed the office phone number for Jeffrey Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal.

If Mr. Zucker is listening to fan complaints he is doing so without talking back. But some NBC stars have, individually, chosen sides. “My heart belongs to Conan!” Alison Brie, an actress on the NBC sitcom “Community,” stated on Twitter last weekend.

Talking to television critics last weekend the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who is producing a new reality show for NBC, was more cautious. It was “the right idea at the wrong time, it was not a bad idea,” Mr. Seinfeld said about Mr. Leno’s 10 p.m. show. “I’m proud of NBC that they had the guts to try something so different and original.”

Similarly, some observers have asserted that NBC should be applauded for taking a risk by trying Mr. Leno in prime time. “Hey, it’s just business,” a commenter wrote. “Neither Leno nor Conan are getting the numbers. NBC made a huge mistake and is bleeding profit. They need to fix it. Faster is better.”

Both Mr. Leno and Mr. O’Brien saw increases in their audience on Tuesday night; Mr. O’Brien’s ratings were up about 40 percent over the prior night among 18- to 49-year-olds. For now NBC remains a punch line on both shows. As Mr. Leno joked on Monday: “Hey, NBC said they wanted drama at 10. Now they’ve got it.”