I’m hard pressed to come up with a viable argument against the headline. If John Oliver isn’t the most straight-up important man in world media right now, at the very least he’s certainly the most interesting. Since breaking away from his role on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to start his own show on HBO in Last Week Tonight, Oliver has been on an unbelievable hot streak wherein he – and his team – have created wildly successful segments on varying news topics, a lot of which aren’t exactly at the forefront of people’s minds.
What sets Oliver’s current work apart from any one else in his field – be it comedian or journalist – is managing to defy what would otherwise be an instantaneous death-knell for content: length. Each episode of Last Week Tonight features a lengthy segment – one that runs in the vicinity of 10 to 15 minutes – on a single topic. The segment is presented commercial free, and is largely anchored around Oliver sitting behind his desk and talking, with news footage interspersed. Obviously this isn’t a new format; both Oliver’s previous employer The Daily Show and its spiritual brother The Colbert Report if not pioneered, then certainly perfected this format. But neither Colbert nor Stewart have ever had the commercial leeway or the creative flexibility to run on any one topic for longer than around 8 minutes at an absolute maximum.
This restraint on time is often seen as a great strength or benefit to material. Time is short in TV Land, and therefore the impact of the piece needs to hit harder, sooner, and more frequently. It’s the best bits of what could be a long argument, boiled down to their most pertinent dot points. And yet from episode one, Oliver has found a long-form format that not only works extremely well, but has the potential to completely change the way news editorial is delivered on television.
Through both the freedom and flexibility that a commercial-free HBO environment provides, and through nailing a sweet spot between detailed, informative presentation and irreverent, altogether hilarious asides – the balance between information and entertainment chased by so many but found by so few – John Oliver is managing to defy the ever-shrinking attention span of the modern viewer.
The evidence is plainly clear. Videos of his rants have exploded online, gaining in excess of a million views on the show’s YouTube channel with striking regularity (his piece on the corruption inherent in world soccer organisation FIFA currently stands at a whopping 7 million views). Make no mistake about it, people are connecting. Take, for example, his latest piece on the increasing gap in income inequality in America.
There’s a fair chance that if you’re reading this you are Australian, and very little of that video applies to you. And yet, it’s still phenomenally interesting.
Another sheer miracle of all this is that it’s even spawned reasonable discussion within YouTube comments sections – where by YouTube’s standards “reasonable discussion” equates to “you actually have to scroll a little bit before either coming across bigoted slurs slung by 14 year olds or invoking Godwin’s Law.”
The ultimate point is that John Oliver is currently doing something that no other news or media outlet has been able to: Engaging an audience for an extended period of time on single topics that are of great social and cultural importance. Genuinely informing whilst genuinely entertaining.
If nothing else, Last Week Tonight is producing fascinating content. And in a world where the media is simply one voice trying to shout over another, that fact alone is worthy of your attention.