John 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?