Why Team Coco Matters

In the niche-media era, it's not just the size of your audience--it's how intensely they care

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Francisco Caceres for TIME. O'Brien: Michael Buckner / Getty Images. Leno: Jason Laveris / Filmmagic / Getty Images.

More than three months after leaving NBC, Conan O'Brien still has Jay Leno preceding him. On Sunday, May 2, O'Brien went on 60 Minutes for his first interview since he jumped/was pushed from The Tonight Show. The night before, Leno did stand-up at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

Despite a few sarcastic asides, O'Brien played his interview surprisingly straight, showing that his feelings about his "toxic" relationship with NBC were still as rough as his bristly unemployment beard. Leno, for his part, fell flat, telling safe John McCain--is--old jokes and getting upstaged by President Obama, who cracked, "I'm also glad that I'm speaking first, because we've all seen what happens when somebody takes the time slot after Leno's."

Jokes aside, Leno and O'Brien are not really competing against each other anymore. With O'Brien launching a show this fall for cable's TBS and Leno restored to old-fashioned broadcast late-night TV, they're now in two different games. The question is, Whose game--and whose model of stardom--matters more today?

Leno is the last of the big-tent comics, dedicated to the principle of something for everybody; late night is the last bastion of humor as sleep aid. And time was, Leno's inoffensive style would have been perfect for the correspondents' dinner. (He first headlined it in 1987.) That was before 2006, when Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert delivered a searingly satiric monologue, sending up not just President Bush but also the reporters at the dinner. Colbert bombed in the room yet won raves outside it; the YouTube video of his performance sealed his reputation as a leading political comic.

In the age of Colbert and The Daily Show--not to mention the polarization of cable news--there's not much comedy in comity anymore. When the President is working edgier material than you are, something has changed.

O'Brien, meanwhile, has moved from Leno's world to Colbert's. He's leaving the broadcast model, which measures success by the absolute number of viewers, and entering the niche-media model, which measures success by the intensity of your following. (And cable can monetize that intensity: O'Brien's deal at TBS is potentially richer than a big-network contract.)

So O'Brien's comeback after the Jaypocalypse has been more Colbertian. Leno did damage control in front of a middle-of-the-road audience, appearing on Oprah in January to say he did "the right thing" in taking his show back.

O'Brien simultaneously went more serious and more edgy. On the one hand, his surprisingly earnest 60 Minutes interview gave him the chance to counter NBC's spin in a respected forum. He made the point (often overlooked in the press) that NBC dumped him not solely because of his ratings but also because Leno's 10 p.m. show failed, and it would have cost NBC tens of millions more to buy out Leno's contract than his.

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