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John-Oliver-HBO-580John Oliver is having his moment.   His satirical news show on HBO, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” is a critical darling and social media sensation.  He’s on the cover of magazines.  He might even be having an impact on public policy.

That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who’s delivered a mere 21 episodes in the previously Siberia-like time slot of 11 p.m. on Sunday night.

Oliver came to fame in the summer of 2013 as the substitute host on “The Daily Show,” filling in for his movie-directing mentor Jon Stewart.  Because he fit so naturally in the fake news anchor chair, HBO snapped him up when Stewart returned.

From the beginning, Oliver’s show was a hit with the critics and public opinion makers.  Why, he dared to commit serious advocacy journalism on a major television network!  Critics swooned when he devoted half the airtime of his second episode to a detailed critique of the death penalty.  And since then he’s done long segments on income inequality, payday loans, the militarization of the local police and other wonky, usually not-very-humorous subjects.

Then on June 2, Oliver delivered a 13-minute diatribe about “net neutrality and call to action that generated so many comments to the FCC that it purportedly crashed the commission’s website.  That translated into real news coverage. Next thing you know, he’s being interviewed by “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, who’s asking him about his decision to display an “older person’s man parts. (It had something to do with the Kentucky senatorial race.)

The appeal of these longer segments depends on a several factors: 1) the extent to which they reinforce your previously held views; 2) the originality of the topic and argumentation; and 3) the actual humor expended on the presentation.  So for my money, that celebrated death penalty piece was little more than a humorless rehash of information known to any regular New York Times reader, but his update on the Indian election was original, interesting and funny.  Most of the others fall in between.  (I’d be interested to see the minute-by-minute ratings of these segments to see how many people tune out for each segment.)

The source of Oliver’s popularity with critics is partly the enthusiasm, humor and brio he brings to complicated public policy issues.  But let’s face it, he’s also praised by these folks because his opinions are reliably liberal in the fine tradition of Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  If he took the same flamethrower to these issues from a right-leaning perspective, the political correctness police would be up in arms.

What strikes me most about the critical acclaim he gets for these advocacy pieces is the frequent assertion that he’s the only one doing long-form journalism on television.  At the very least, this seems unfair to Colbert, who spent countless hours during the 2012 campaign educating viewers on the failings of federal election laws.

But unless my eyes deceive me, there’s still a little show called “60 Minutes” that produces long-form journalism every week.  Granted that the pace on “60 Minutes” is considerably slower and there are far more words crammed into 15 minutes of “Last Week Tonight” than into 15 minutes of “60 Minutes,” but it’s hard to maintain that “60 Minutes” does not deliver hardcore liberal advocacy journalism.

Of course “60 Minutes” has been around forever, and “Last Week Tonight” is the shiny new toy, but what none of the critics seem to realize is that Oliver’s show, for all its buzz, generates less than one-tenth the audience as “60 Minutes.”  Doesn’t sheer audience size count for something?

Where you can make the case for Oliver’s importance is his power on social media.   His episode on net neutrality attracted fewer than a million live-plus-same-day viewers (which, granted doesn’t count long-term DVR viewing), but it has been watched more than six million times on YouTube alone.  That doesn’t even count the additional millions of tweets and Facebook mentions it received.  Compare that to the mere 25,000 people who watched President Obama’s “60 Minutes” interview on YouTube.  This would seem to reinforce the point I made in my previous column that television is beginning to serve the Internet, not the other way around.

So all power to John Oliver.  The traditional TV news outlets have become so boring and predictable that we need all the fake news shows we can get.  A little diversity of opinion in the fake satirical news world would be welcome, however.  How come only liberals get to satirize the news?

 

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Television has had a pretty good run as the main driver of public opinion — but events of the past few months make me wonder if it’s finally beginning to cede that position to the Internet.

There are Internetists who will say, what do you mean, “finally?” But as recently as 2012, it was television — through the debates, TV ads and cable news supercoverage — that drove the presidential election and other public debate.

TV’s role as the most influential medium in America began in 1960 with the Nixon/Kennedy debates of 1960, which swung the presidential election to JFK, and persisted for more than 50 years. TV had video — moving pictures of people lying, crying, or dying — and the power of video cannot be understated.

It was television that eroded public support for the Vietnam War. It was “60 Minutes” that brought down companies and errant business executives. And it was the obsessions of the cable news networks over the past decades that drove public discourse and contributed to the stalemates in Washington.

The Internet has displayed video for a long time, but the extreme pervasiveness of social media has finally broken television’s near-monopoly on small-screen moving images. These days a video on YouTube or TMZ can be viewed by more people than on the evening news.  And sometimes a video that is too gruesome to be shown on TV can still be viewed by millions online, creating a whole new outlet for videos that people would never have seen before.

A case in point: the videos of ISIS militants beheading American journalists — which, being too repugnant for television, were primarily transmitted by the Internet. ISIS had been rampaging across the Middle East committing atrocity after atrocity with limited American response, but the videos of the beheadings finally pushed the U.S. over the edge toward developing a strategy to roll back ISIS’ gains.

Then there’s the case of Ray Rice, the NFL player who last winter knocked out his then-fiancé during an argument. Initially the NFL suspended him for two games, but that was extended to six games when a video of Rice dragging the unconscious woman out of an elevator surfaced. And when lo and behold a second video materialized showing the actual knockout blow, the NFL suspended him indefinitely. Which leads a cynic to conclude that he wasn’t suspended for beating a woman unconscious, but for doing so in front of a video camera.

In any event, the Ray Rice videos were surfaced not by “60 Minutes,” the NBC Nightly News, or ESPN, but by the Internet gossip site TMZ. The videos were then dispersed by social media and other Internet sites, leaving TV to play catch-up. And while it’s true that many TV networks ran the videos on air and continue to discuss them ad nauseam, Rice’s behavior would not have been an issue at all without the Internet.

Do two high-profile news events make a trend?  Maybe not, but the ISIS beheadings and Ray Rice videos seem to signal an important inflection point.  Since the creation of the Internet, the video part of online world has existed in large part to amplify and promote what’s on TV.  Cat videos and laughing babies aside, many of the most-watched videos have been TV clips that either deliberately created promotional buzz for a show or provided unintentional hilarity through flubs, miscues and whatnot.  But now the Internet is more in the driver’s seat. Increasingly, many of the nation’s news and entertainment originates in the online world, with TV amplifying what the online world has already seen and reacted to.

This is not to suggest that TV is going anywhere.  According to Nielsen’s Cross-Platform Report, Americans still spend 25 times as much time watching video on television as they do online. And traditional TV will continue to be the source of most video entertainment for a long time. But the Internet seems finally to have become the primary vehicle for shaping public opinion, wresting that role from television, just as TV wrested it away from newspapers 50 years ago.