One of the worst trends in American media over the last few decades has been the devolution of television news. Networks that once saw their news divisions as a way of upholding their FCC-mandated responsibility to benefit the public good long ago began treating the news as just another entertainment product, with the occasional branch into cheerleading whenever the government decides to start an unnecessary war. And cable news networks have officially chased the 24-hour news cycle to the bottom of the barrel, spinning macabre entertainment out of the worst aspects of humanity whenever they aren’t manufacturing support for the latest war. This might not be so troubling if it weren’t for the fact that 55 percent of Americans rely on television for their news.
In this desert of substance, one of the handful of oases is HBO. With its subscription model, HBO is free of the pressures that network and cable channels feel whenever they go anywhere near a controversial stance on any potentially sensitive topic, allowing for a lot of creative freedom. News isn’t a historical strong point for the channel. It has a long history with quality documentaries, but also with plenty of more sensational fare. Still, the same sorts of market forces that it has leveraged with other kinds of content in the past are at play in the current news landscape, and two of its newer shows stand out for using the creative freedom to take news to places that the rest of television won’t.
Vice concluded its second season of reporting on political and culture topics around the world on HBO this past summer. Reviews have been mixed, mostly because of the show’s presentation. But audiences have responded to the show enough that HBO has already renewed it for another two seasons.
It’s easy to accuse Vice of sensationalism, given some of the topics it covers (like Kim Jong-un’s “basketball diplomacy” game in North Korea, marijuana legalization in Colorado, Senegalese professional wrestling, or Nigerian oil pirates). But with segments on war, revolution, corruption, and nuclear radiation, from the fringes of the modern world, there’s plenty of real value to be had in the show.
The Vice crew travels to some places that most TV-watching Americans have never even heard of, and to plenty of others that sound familiar only from scary headlines. On-the-ground stories from locales like these are underreported, if they’re ever mentioned at all, in the mainstream American media. Other segments stay closer to home with a critical eye to some of the country’s darker aspects, looking at drug addiction and mental health issues among combat veterans, drought in Texas, gangs in Chicago, and the growing surveillance state in Camden, New Jersey. Wherever the story comes from, it’s not like anything you’ll see where most people get their news.
To say that Last Week Tonight With John Oliver takes on big topics with a comedic bent makes the show sound jokier than it really is. The show certainly is funny, but it’s most remarkable being the white rhino of modern TV: it entertains while it educates. There’s a pedigree at play in the show – Oliver is a former correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, which built its reputation skewering the media during the early 2000s. But with no advertisers to please and 30 minutes uninterrupted by their commercials, Last Week Tonight has room to stretch out and be something different than The Daily Show has ever been.
The studio portions feel a lot like The Daily Show in presentation, with host Oliver either talking directly to the camera or conducting an interview in front of a studio audience. Instead of commercials, short produced segments, often related to the main topic of the show, are shown before Oliver returns to the camera. The host’s satiric instincts are as sharp as anybody’s on television today, and he and his writers run free on every topic they tackle.
Where Oliver’s show is particularly valuable isn’t so much in hard-hitting criticism as it is in the breadth of topics it takes on in an approachable manner. The writers are perfectly at home taking on topics being talked about in the wider news, like the NFL’s violence problem or militarized police confronting citizens in Ferguson, Mo., from a deeper perspective. But they also cover stories that would barely merit a scrolling ticker headline on FOX, CNN, or the network news. From the Indian election to civil forfeiture to the American prison system to net neutrality to Tony Abbott, Australia’s answer to George W. Bush, HBO audiences are exposed to more intelligent discussion of a wider variety of current events in 30 minutes weekly than they get on all the cable news networks combined.
One of the best things about Last Week Tonight is how it gets past the traditional problem of a subscriber-supported network, namely that non-subscribers don’t get to see its programming. The show’s YouTube channel features most of its segments and they routinely reach millions of viewers. The segment on net neutrality from four months ago has reached more than 6.4 million views, and another on the FIFA World Cup from the same time has 8.1 million. The segment on the Miss America pageant has 6 million views in just three weeks.
Straying too far from the conventional narrative with the news is a sure way to lose advertisers on traditional network and cable television, which is part of the problem with American politics. HBO doesn’t have those same pressures, and the result is broader horizons on the news for American TV viewers.