#TeamConan: Why It Didn't Keep Conan O'Brien at NBC [Updated]

Last Updated Jan 19, 2010 8:57 AM EST

(UPDATE: The deal for Conan O'Brien to leave NBC is now complete. Reportedly his divorce from the network results in a payout of $44 million, with $12 million going to his employees.)

Here's one curiosity of the groundswell of #teamconan online support for about-to-be-former "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien: that it had no influence whatsoever in what appears to be the final outcome, nor was it really expected to. In the past week, there hasn't been even the slightest suggestion by those-in-the-know that the "I'm with Coco" campaign would result in O'Brien holding onto "The Tonight Show."

As of this writing, it is all but certain that O'Brien, favored among the hipper, younger Internet demographic, will indeed leave the network, in favor of a return to "Tonight" of Jay Leno, who, by his own admission, was told by NBC execs years ago that there was no way he could maintain his lead in the ratings. One can only think that NBC was operating under the assumption that as he aged, his audience would drift away, or die. In light of that, does NBC's deaf ear to O'Brien's Internet popularity represent another failure to understand what audiences want?

This time, no. It's just an expression of what TV may be slowly learning: that younger audiences matter less and less. Not because advertisers don't covet them (they do), but because wherever younger audiences are, they aren't watching late night TV the way their elders did, and if they do, they are all over the dial, watching things like "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart", "The Colbert Report" and "Adult Swim" on the Cartoon Network. If younger audiences did tune into late-night talk shows, O'Brien wouldn't have found himself miles behind David Letterman's "Late Show" in overall ratings.

Thus, though the re-appointment of Jay Leno to helm "Tonight" may seem like a return to the good old days, it's really the beginning of the end. A decade or so from now, when Jay Leno finally gives up the show, he -- and his audience -- will probably be the last ones to remember the import the show once had in the pop culture landscape. The younger demo may love Conan O'Brien, but tune into him like clockwork at 11:35 p.m. every weeknight? Unfortunately for the genre, when it comes to media consumption habits, they've already moved on.

Minor update: Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon points to what you might call digital graffiti that's probably the work of #teamconan and/or other Conan sympathizers. Check out the tags at the bottom of this Hulu page.

Previous coverage of Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno at BNET Media: