Web campaign rallies support for host Conan O'Brien

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An Internet campaign in support of "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien has gone viral after the funnyman threatened to quit if the program was pushed back to a new slot just after midnight.

O'Brien warned this week he would "not participate" if NBC television went ahead with plans to shift the long-running chat show to a 12:05 am (0805 GMT) start time in order to accommodate a new talk show hosted by Jay Leno.

O'Brien's heartfelt statement was the latest twist to the ongoing saga of NBC's late-night programming, which has transfixed television industry analysts and outraged fans of "The Tonight Show."

Now supporters of O'Brien, whose ratings have surged this week after the wrangling went public, have launched a support page on social networking site Facebook, "I'm With Coco," which has attracted more than 91,000 fans.

"I'm a huge Conan fan," founder Mike Mitchell told Entertainment Weekly. "I went to one of the first test shows here in LA, and I've been a big fan for a long time ... The whole thing's just a crappy situation."

O'Brien said Tuesday he had been told of "The Tonight Show's" new airtime by NBC chiefs following the decision to yank predecessor Jay Leno's talk show from its prime-time slot after months of dismal ratings.

Leno stepped down as host of "The Tonight Show" in May - which he had taken over from legendary long-time host Johnny Carson in 1992 - and was replaced by O'Brien as part of a long-standing agreement.

Leno surprised television industry analysts, however, by returning in September with a new prime-time talk show, airing just before the O'Brien-hosted "Tonight Show."

However, on Sunday NBC confirmed Leno's show was being pulled from its coveted 10:00 pm (0600 GMT) slot and would be given a new 30-minute window at 11:30 pm - the space currently occupied by O'Brien's "Tonight Show."

O'Brien voiced his dismay in an open letter.

"After only seven months, with my 'Tonight Show' in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule," O'Brien said.

"I sincerely believe that delaying the 'Tonight Show' into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.

"'The 'Tonight Show' at 12:05 simply isn't the 'Tonight Show.'... I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction."

O'Brien said he was still hopeful that the differences with NBC could be resolved and said he had not received any offers from other rival networks.

O'Brien has repeatedly referenced the dispute in his show's signature opening monologue this week.

"Everybody wants to know what my plans are," O'Brien quipped on Monday. "All I can say is I plan to keep putting on a great show night after night while stealing as many office supplies as humanly possible - I got 10 cartridges of toner shoved in my pants right now."