Conan vs. NBC: The Online Propaganda War Heats Up



Conan O’Brien addressed the “People of Earth” on Tuesday, saying he had no intention to support NBC’s bid to move The Tonight Show into a later time slot and make him play leapfrog with Jay Leno. The move means that geek fans may lose the first late-night host to actively court their demographic using what are now mainstay internet features: quirky, non sequitur humor and low-fi graphics that YouTubers seem to love. Fittingly, techie loyalists are pushing an online petition, Team Conan Twitter feed, fan tribute tumblr, and anti-Leno video game. Let the Save Conan! propaganda war begin.

The best visual protests so far:

1. The “I’m with COCO” faux presidential campaign portrait.

2. The show-your-support printable Coco wig.

3. And the proletariat Jay Leno isn’t funny search result.

As for the ratings? We should all admit that the sheer volume of butts on the couch doesn’t matter anymore. David Letterman seemed to be beating the big red giant since his new show debuted seven months ago, but O’Brien’s sense of humor was thought to have appealed to a coveted younger and more spendy demographic. It did. Problem is, that demo actually views the concept of watching television at a fixed time as obsolete. Thanks to competition from on-demand and Hulu and the best of O’Brien’s stand-up clips appearing on YouTube, his regular viewership has sagged to 2.5 million viewers–that’s niche market status.


Still, NBC seems to have obviously underestimated the cult love of O’Brien’s audience. (And frankly, Fox appears to be ignoring it, too.) From an old-school perspective, maybe bringing back Leno makes sense; he can catch far more gray-hairs before they go shuffling off to bed, giving advertisers the exposure they want, even if those people aren’t actually buying big ticket items. From a new media perspective, NBC should be careful. Everyone will soon be accepting slimmer profits and looking for ways to make new dividends. For now, even Jimmy Fallon has proven that he can win a stable audience, ironically by stealing much of O’Brien’s court-the-nerd playbook. If he’s reinstated, the network could probably make some extra money hawking “I’m with COCO” t-shirts.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.