Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The John Oliver Moment

I admit that I failed to take "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" seriously.  When it premiered roughly a year ago on HBO, I didn't think of it as a real competitor to "The Daily Show"." because it was so far from the typical late night format I had come to expect. No interviews, no obvious gimmickry, and it was only on once a week.  On top of that it was airing on HBO of all places, which is premium cable and thus inaccessible to the majority of the population.  Of course, I didn't realize that HBO would regularly be making "Last Week" segments available on Youtube for free.  Or that John Oliver would take advantage of the commercial-free, sponsorship-free platform to construct much more pointed political and social commentary than "The Daily Show" ever allowed for.  I've seen several of his longer opinion pieces over the past year, including the one that some folks believe may he helped turn the tide in the recent battle for net neutrality.
Today, like everyone else, whenever a new John Oliver piece pops up online, it moves ahead to the top of my list of videos to watch.  I find it absolutely fascinating how Oliver has managed to insert himself into policy debates so effectively, and I think a lot of it has to do with the format.  (Paging Marshall McLuhan!)  Let's take the net neutrality piece as an example.  I've been following the issue for a while now, so I was aware of most of the information being presented.  However, John Oliver managed to package the mostly dull, technical arguments in a way that is entertaining to watch as well as being informative.  The segment is thirteen minutes long, which isn't nearly as long as some of his others, but still longer than a regular broadcast news program could devote to a story without adding a commercial break.  The extra time allows Oliver to get much more in depth on his subjects, often using extensively fact-checked independent research.  But the most vital moment is at the end, where Oliver directs viewers to the FCC's website to go comment on the newly proposed net neutrality rules and "focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction."  So when the video went viral, it actually created a mass political action and ultimately helped to shape policy.
And while that's great for defenders of net neutrality, it's also a little scary.  We've seen Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert toy with actually trying to influence politics before, but in very limited ways.  The "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" was really a get-out-the-vote event.  I can recall only one instance where Stewart devoted an episode of "The Daily Show" to pushing for a specific piece of legislation - a 9/11 first responders health bill that wasn't remotely controversial.  John Oliver, on the other hand, seems to have no problem with crossing over from comic presenter to outright pundit, using many of the same satirical tactics from his time on "The Daily Show," but with a different intention.  While there's a lot of humor in "Last Week Tonight," there's far more argument crammed into one of his segments than jokes.  And the thing is, Oliver has proven that this combination of "Frontline" plus fart jokes is amazingly effective.  The reason the net neutrality video took off is because it is hysterical.  He compares the FCC chairman to a dingo and the telecoms to the mob.  His recruitment of the internet trolls to be his minions against the FCC is one of the best bits of comedy from last year. 
I'm not so worried about John Oliver wielding this kind of power, because Oliver has proven to be a responsible, moral individual who cares passionately about what he's doing and advocates honestly for his positions.  He's being backed up by a crackerjack research team and some of his pieces have more reporting in them than actual news stories.  The one about the Miss America pageant organization fudging its scholarship award numbers is one of my favorites.   In short, John Oliver is trustworthy.  Others in the news media universe, however, are not.  And after the recent controversies with Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly, it's good to remember that there are real concerns about conflating the charisma and personality of a pundit or presenter with the information that they're providing.  In the age of 24 cable news channels and non-stop news commentary filling in for factual analysis, there are plenty of people who are already employing many of the same entertainment-boosting tactics that John Oliver does, and we need to remember that there are inherent dangers in this. 
The net neutrality video's success was probably a fluke to some degree.  None of Oliver's other segments have had nearly so much impact, though there have been some fun instances of the "John Oliver Effect," as TIME magazine has dubbed his influence.  I don't know if he'll be as successful or as respected as Jon Stewart in the long run, but John Oliver certainly deserves all the acclaim that he's enjoyed this past year and I'I expect I'll be watching "Last Week Tonight" for as long as it's running.   

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