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On the other hand, he has played to the fans who have adopted him as a folk hero--Team Coco--with a grass-roots, underdog approach. He went straight to his public with self-deprecating jokes on Twitter, and he came up with a DIY solution to the buyout-deal terms that kept him off TV by launching the cross-country Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, like some pre-TV-era populist doing a road show (albeit a populist with a $30 million severance package).
O'Brien's strategy may seem contradictory, but it's really not. The Team Coco crowd, like Colbert's and Stewart's fans, are drawn to icons they see as both hipper and brainier than Middle America's. Leno is the old-school model of a mass-media personality whom we all share: "America is standing up for Jay." Team Coco and the Colbert Nation instead appeal to a sense of personal investment--"I'm with Coco"--in a host who's not for everyone.
The way O'Brien's path is diverging from Leno's raises the question: What does it mean to be a media star today? Is it about household viewers or Twitter followers? Breadth or depth? Mass appeal or cult appeal? (TV ad money is focused on under-50 demographics, so the right cult audience can have outsize influence.)
Conan and TBS are betting it is better to have a smaller group of fans who care intensely about what you do than a bigger number who care just enough to not change the channel. It doesn't apply only to comedians. More people watch Brian Williams every night than Glenn Beck; that doesn't make Williams more influential.
Maybe it's fitting, after all, that Leno was playing the White House. Outside The Tonight Show, the only seat of American power that still depends on building a wide coalition is national politics. We have only one President. In the world of digital cable, everyone can be king.